Tonight’s contest in Columbia is what you might call a potential “Program Elevating” moment for the Tar Heels. An upset win for Fedora (in just his second campaign) against a top ten SEC team could change the entire perception of his program — for longer than just a season if the Heels were to finish the year strong.
Beating an SEC team is a statement win and borderline season-crowning accomplishment in almost any context (even for some teams in the SEC — looking at you, Kentucky). But Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks also bring their highest preseason ranking in school history into Williams-Brice Stadium Thursday night at #6 (as high as #5 in some polls), and there’s even been national title talk among SC faithful just south of the border ever since their squad finished with a program-best 11-2 record in 2012.
Magnifying the importance of the matchup for UNC, the game is slated as ESPN’s signature nationally televised opening game, and to boot, South Carolina will be showcasing what might be the nation’s most talented player (and certainly most highlighted this offseason) in Jadeveon Clowney — who many think is the best defensive player coming out of college since Julius Peppers. (Some scouts wondered if the freakish defensive end is so good that he should sit out the entire season simply to avoid injury until he’s eligible for the NFL draft.) Point being: the Heels find themselves amidst some big-time football Thursday evening and the masses will be watching coast to coast.
Of course, Clowney isn’t the only talented player on Spurrier’s ball club (even if the media doesn’t realize it). Like any winning team from the Southeastern Conference, the Gamecocks are big, fast and talented top-to-bottom. Their defense is one of the best in the country and no Spurrier-coached team has ever been without an ability to score.
If — if — the Gamecocks have a weakness, it’s their quarterback play, which the Heels will have to exploit to have much of a chance to come out of Columbia with a win. Starter Connor Shaw is a dual-threat QB who can be dangerous at times, but has hardly separated himself from backup Dylan Thompson — a situation that generally bodes well for the Tar Heels considering their defensive woes of last year. Spurrier has even hinted that both might play in the season opener, and that’s never a good sign for any offense.
Fedora’s “4-2-5” defense which relies on speed and assignments has yet to slow many teams down since his arrival in Chapel Hill however. Having lost defensive leaders Kevin Reddick and Sly Williams to the NFL, veterans like cornerback Tre Boston and defensive end Kareem Martin will likely have to force a few turnovers to give their team a shot at the upset in which Vegas is picking the Cocks by -11.5.
The Heels do have plenty of offensive talent to bring to the table Thursday night; Fedora’s scoring attack is coming off one of the best seasons in UNC history statistically speaking. And even without Gio Bernard in the backfield, UNC still has third-year starter Bryn Renner and an All-American candidate in James Hurst at left tackle to line up against Clowney.
With offensive weapons like Romar Morris and tight end Eric Ebron, Fedora should have no problem putting up some points Thursday night; so the real question will be how many points the Heels give up themselves. UNC scored 30+ nine times in 2012 and will certainly have to do so again to have a chance this evening — it would be far fetched to imagine their gutted defense keeping South Carolina in the 20s.
If UNC can limit their turnovers, and force a few of their own — the viewing public could be in for a great border-rivals game tonight. But if UNC gets down early or blows a special teams play, allowing Clowney to pin his ears back against UNC’s young offensive line, it could be a long night for the Tar Heels. Nonetheless, if Fedora can catch a few breaks and keep things close until the fourth quarter, it might be the start of something special in Chapel Hill.