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Game of the Week Preview: South Carolina-North Carolina

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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There are a number of compelling storylines deeply intertwined within this ACC-SEC border war.

Overview -- There are a number of compelling storylines deeply intertwined within this ACC-SEC border war. The return of veteran head coach Mack Brown, North Carolina's leader during the Tar Heels' heyday, brings a national spotlight to this pairing. When Brown was at Texas, now-South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp was his defensive coordinator; furthermore, Muschamp was the Longhorns' head-coach-in-waiting. With Brown, who will start a true freshman quarterback in Sam Howell, North Carolina is hitting the reset button both in a big way and with big names. Senior quarterback Jake Bentley, set to become just the 10th SEC quarterback ever with 10,000 career passing yards, will lead the Gamecocks through perhaps the toughest schedule in the country, with this being step one.

Why to Watch -- This Belk Kickoff comes with a lot of potential, unknowns and excitement. Simply put, Mack Brown's North Carolina reintroduction to college football is fascinating. So, too, is the quarterback matchup. Few signal callers nationally are as accomplished as South Carolina's Jake Bentley, who threw for 510 yards and five touchdowns at Clemson late last year. On the other side, true freshman Sam Howell, who flipped late in the recruiting process from Florida State, will step directly into the spotlight. Howell will become the first true freshman ever, for the Tar Heels, to start a season opener. The winner gets important momentum for what could prove to be an interesting, and impactful, remainder of the year.

Keys for North Carolina

1. Lean on the Offensive Line -- If North Carolina is to win Saturday at Bank of America Stadium, the front five will lead the way. With All-ACC tackle Charlie Heck setting the tone, the Tar Heels have the potential to have one of the better offensive lines in the country yet again. North Carolina led the league, and all of Power Five football year ago, allowing just ten total sacks, also slotting fourth in the conference with 5.28 yards per carry. Though some clear retooling must be done, will multiple underclassmen now in the starting lineup, the group should still be the foundation of Mack Brown's (second) first team in Chapel Hill. It will be imperative that Heck and company protect true freshman quarterback Sam Howell, who will square off against a formidable South Carolina pass rush featuring the likes of linebacker T.J. Brunson, tackle Javon Kinlaw and now-healthy end D.J. Wonnum. Given the Gamecocks are assuredly going to attack the inexperienced Howell, the play of veteran center Nick Polino will be key as he makes line calls and recognizes oncoming blitzes. Obviously, the opening of consistent rushing lanes for Michael Carter and Antonio Williams would make Howell's job much easier. There may be opportunities, as South Carolina was the SEC's second-to-last ranked rush defense a season ago. The Tar Heels must find success at the point of attack.

2. Easy Throws, Big Rewards -- It goes without saying that the confidence of young Sam Howell will be incredibly important. Getting the true freshman in a rhythm, all with as little risk as possible, should be the goal. Expect new offensive coordinator Phil Longo to incorporate quick throws that get North Carolina's playmakers out in space. Think yards-after-catch. Howell has multiple receivers with that type of ability, specifically Dazz Newsome, who can be absolutely dynamic one-on-one. Also, tight end Carl Tucker can be a major factor here. He, as a unique mismatch problem, averaged over 16.5 yards per catch last season. Middle-of-the-field throws to Tucker could prove to be quite effective if the Tar Heels spread the field as they hope to. He can move with the football in his hands. Plays that are simpler, and thus faster, in nature can mitigate an opposing pass rush, get a quarterback into his comfort zone and incorporate a pace that tires a defense. Expect North Carolina to force the issue.

3. Limit the Production of Bryan Edwards -- Jake Bentley's favorite target is the record-setting Edwards, the SEC's active receptions leader with 163 career catches. He enters his senior season on pace to become the Gamecocks' all-time leading receiver, especially-notable given the program lineage. Remarkably, Edwards has at least one reception in every single game of his three-year career. Just once, in a span of 38 outings, has Edwards caught only a single pass in a contest; it went for a 33-yard touchdown. In 2018, he caught 55 passes for 846 yards and seven touchdowns, meaning Edwards is a consistent big play threat. Though there are other playmakers on South Carolina's roster, North Carolina's focus should be limiting Edwards' opportunities. Often, Bentley goes as his number one option goes. If the Tar Heels can force Bentley down via multiple progressions, it's likely his proficiency totals will go down as well. The Gamecocks go through Bentley, who goes through Edwards; slowing down the accomplished wideout is, in some ways, the key to stifling South Carolina as a whole. The 6'2'', 208-pound Patrice Rene awaits as a fascinating matchup for Edwards.      

Keys for South Carolina

1. Grab Momentum Early -- The first quarter of Saturday's game is going to be significant for South Carolina as the table is set for the first contest of the year and, perhaps, the rest of the season overall. Simply put, this team did not play well in its last outing, getting shutout by Virginia on the same field they will soon step onto. It will be important for the Gamecocks, with storylines all summer focusing on a schedule that may be the nation's toughest, to show that they have both moved on from the end of last year and that the anticipation for what is awaiting isn't a distraction. Additionally, an statement first quarter would put considerable pressure on a North Carolina, surely still gelling in Mack Brown's first game back. A quick deficit would also brighten the spotlight dramatically on true freshman quarterback Sam Howell, making him more of an immediate focal point and allowing the South Carolina pass rushers to attack accordingly. From there, the Gamecocks could theoretically take control of the afternoon. South Carolina is the consensus favorite in this matchup, has the more proven roster and recent continuity amongst the coaches; validation, there, in terms of the game's first few series, would likely lead to victory.

2. Find Offensive Balance -- While quarterback Jake Bentley is capable of winning games with his arm, South Carolina, and its star quarterback, is most efficient when mixing the pass and run. While the Gamecocks ranked 12th in the SEC in rush offense a year ago, North Carolina finished 13th in the ACC, and 111th nationally, in rush defense. Rico Dowdle is quite productive when healthy and should be an offensive focal point like he was early last season. He had three 100-yard games in 2018 and averaged over 5.3 yards per rush. Clemson-transfer Tavien Feaster should get also get some looks. With the Tar Heels making some schematic changes, running backs may be able to take advantage of some relative unfamiliarity along the defensive front. If South Carolina can get North Carolina guessing, Bentley and his talented set of wide receivers will be extremely difficult to stop. The Gamecocks will undoubtedly be led by their veteran quarterback, but week one will also be an opportunity to consistently move the chains on the ground.

3. Win the Turnover Margin -- South Carolina did not win the turnover margin in a single one of its six losses from 2018. That was, in large part, the determining factor in the Gamecocks winning and losing. In a game pairing a senior quarterback in Jake Bentley against a true freshman quarterback in Sam Howell, South Carolina simply must win the most important statistical category in the game. Bentley, who threw the most interceptions in the SEC with 14 as a junior, needs to protect the football. Even as talented as Howell is, his inexperience would suggest there will be defensive opportunities to make plays on the football. Though the Gamecocks recorded only six interceptions all of last season, Saturday just may be a chance to improve upon that trend. Expect defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson to mix and match looks, blitzes and coverages in an attempt to force Howell to rush his decisions. End D.J. Wonnum, individually, will be looked to for pressure. Given the advantages South Carolina appears to have, this aspect of the gameplan is pretty simple; don't give North Carolina extra chances offensively and look to capitalize on Howell's mistakes.

Position Advantages

Quarterback: South Carolina -- Jake Bentley's experience and production, soon to be in the record books, speaks for itself. He has played in numerous big games for the Gamecocks. Fresh out of high school, Sam Howell is stepping right into the spotlight in his home state.

Running Back: North Carolina --  Michael Carter and Antonio Williams combined for over 1,100 yards in 2018, averaging 7.1 and 5.5 yards per carry. They give the Tar Heels an impressive one-two tandem. South Carolina's depth is good, too, with Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster.

Pass Catchers: South Carolina -- Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith are back off big seasons, giving the Gamecocks proven playmakers out wide. Tight end Carl Tucker could prove to be a difference-maker for the Tar Heels, along with Dazz Newsome.

Offensive Line: North Carolina -- Yes, the Tar Heels have some rebuilding to do. But tackle Charlie Heck and center Nick Polino are among the best at their position in all of college football. For the Gamecocks, guard Donnell Stanley is a star.

Defensive Line: South Carolina -- The return of end D.J. Wonnum from injury is a boost for the Gamecocks as he had 13 tackles for loss in 2017. He and Javon Kinlaw are a strong inside-outside duo. Jason Stowbridge is a disruptive tackle for the Tar Heels.

Linebackers: South Carolina -- T.J. Brunson is a defensive leader, pacing the Gamecocks with 194 total tackles the past two years. South Carolina has multiple proven middle-of-the-field defenders. The Tar Heels are looking to fortify their depth chart.

Secondary: North Carolina -- Senior Patrick Rene is the prototype at cover corner. He gives the Tar Heels a number one perimeter defender. Senior safety Myles Dorn is another savvy, experienced option. Jaycee Horn and Jamyest Williams are emerging Gamecock playmakers.

Special Teams: South Carolina -- Parker White recently made 13-of-16 field goals for the Gamecocks, converting some crucial attempts. Joseph Charlton is a solid punter as well. Though the Tar Heels have some kicking issues, Dazz Newsome is a home run return specialist.

Coaching: South Carolina -- Though there is great optimism around Mack Brown's second tenure in Chapel Hill, it may take some time for the Tar Heels to mesh. Will Muschamp has largely done a good job with the Gamecocks and has the benefit of familiarity.

Intangibles: North Carolina -- This off-season has been one of anticipation for the Tar Heels and the struggles of last year now seem like a distant memory. Mack Brown has rejuvenated North Carolina and plenty of blue should be in the stands in Charlotte.

Players to Watch

North Carolina: Sam Howell, QB -- All eyes will be on the true freshman signal caller, who will be making his collegiate debut close to home. Howell is a big-time talent, also capable of making some plays with his legs. The future, for he and the Tar Heels, is now.

South Carolina: T.J. Brunson, LB -- A sideline-to-sideline defender and an instinctive presence, Brunson can make an impact all over the field. He will need to be both disruptive towards Sam Howell and effective in run support against UNC's stable of backs.

Final Thoughts

The variables, here, make this pairing a unique one. What are fair expectations for Mack Brown in year one? How good can South Carolina be? Though early season matchups can sometimes even the slate as teams settle in on both sides, the Gamecocks appear to be the more well-rounded team on paper. Obviously, South Carolina has a dramatic edge in experience at the game's most important position as well, with Jake Bentley's legacy compared to the start of the Sam Howell era. While the latter will make some plays and the Tar Heels will show off some potential, the Gamecocks are the more polished side and take control late in the contest.

South Carolina -- 31, North Carolina 20

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports