The South Carolina Gamecocks open their 2019 season against the North Carolina Tar Heels this afternoon in Charlotte, a venue that has traditionally been kind to them until last December’s Bowl Game That Shall Not Be Named. It’s been a long offseason sitting with that woeful result, and now USC must embark on the first step of what many pundits consider to be one of the toughest schedules in the country. Here’s a quick look at what the Gamecocks need to do to get back in the winning column at Bank of America Stadium.
Establish the run. The Gamecocks are 20-4 under coach Will Muschamp when they rush for 100 or more yards, and all eyes will be on Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster and the rest of the South Carolina backfield. The Gamecocks’ rushing attack can be charitably described as “mediocre” under Muschamp’s watch, and in many games, has been downright nonexistent. With some personnel shuffling in the running backs group, highlighted by the aforementioned addition of Feaster, the hope is that USC can finally find a workhorse tailback to stand out. If that happens, it can only mean good things for quarterback Jake Bentley and the rest of the offense, which has occasionally struggled to produce against that challenge of being one-dimensional.
On the other side of the ball, stop the run. With a lack of talent, size, and some inopportune injuries, South Carolina has struggled to contain the run. The Gamecocks yielded about 200 yards on the ground per game in 2018, getting road-graded by teams you’d expect like Georgia (271) and Clemson (351), but also giving up unfortunate totals to Missouri (286) and Florida (361). Fortunately, South Carolina finds itself in good health to start 2019, and now finally has a mix of talent and workable depth along the defensive line. With stalwart stars like Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum, and former prized recruit Zacch Pickens now in the mix, this former Achilles heel could turn into a strength. There’s no time like the present, too: With a true freshman quarterback getting the start, the Tar Heels will likely lean heavily on their run game, as Michael Carter and Antonio Williams return to lead a productive backfield.
Don’t be too sloppy. Here’s where I go the intangibles route and beg the Gamecocks to not show up looking like they’ve never seen a football before. It’s typical and even expected that most college football teams will be shaking off some rust and struggling to get it going in Week 1, but South Carolina really needs to avoid beating itself with silly penalties and other unforced errors. The Virginia game still looms large as a bitter example of a shockingly unprepared squad, and that’s the absolute last thing anyone associated with USC wants to see today. Hopefully Bentley comes out cool, calm, collected, and ready to lead this team to victory.
It’s tough to say how this one will go. Recent games in this series have been ugly, sloppy, and low-scoring, and with the aforementioned rust, I could see today playing out in much the same way. UNC is not nearly as awful as its 2-9 record last year would indicate, and new (old?) coach Mack Brown has been a shot in the arm for that program. I doubt he’s turned the Tar Heels around over a single offseason, though — UNC has some pieces, but the Gamecocks are just farther ahead when it comes to experience and depth. I see a relatively pedestrian 24-10 type of victory for South Carolina, with a first half that’s perhaps a bit too close for comfort before the Gamecocks pull away.