With this game being the first of the season, it’s very important for South Carolina to swing the ever-important pendulum of momentum their direction. A tough matchup against N.C. State will set the tone for the rest of the season.
South Carolina is projected to have an explosive offense this season, but if there is a team that can neutralize that, it is the Wolfpack. Edge defender Bradley Chubb will likely have the best of either Sadarius Hutcherson or Malik Young on the blind side, as the third-team All-ACC defender had 10.5 sacks a season ago. The talented end and projected first-round pick will likely be the subject of double teams all game, and slowing him down will be a major key to a Carolina victory.
The NC State offense returns eight starters on offense this year, but Jaylen Samuels is a player Carolina’s defense needs to keep track of all game. The H-back plays all over the field, lining up in the backfield, out wide, and in the slot. The versatile player led the team in receiving touchdowns (seven) and was second in rushing touchdowns (6) and will once again be responsible for helping the Wolfpack offense and returning quarterback Ryan Finley move the chains.
Unlike South Carolina, N.C. State does not have a proven workhorse tailback, as the ACC’s third-leading rusher from last season, Matthew Dayes, has graduated. That will be a huge void to fill for the Wolfpack as the offense flowed primarily through him on early downs. More pressure will be put on the inconsistent Ryan Finley to create offense and plays to drive the ball up the field.
In order for South Carolina to win this game, their re-shuffled offensive line must be able to compete with the fearsome N.C. State front seven. If they can’t, rushing lanes will be shut down, and Jake Bentley won’t be able to set up in the pocket (although he did rank best among SEC QB’s in PFF passing grades when under pressure).
South Carolina’s defensive front must not allow Ryan Finley time to go through his progressions and find the open receiver. When he has a clean pocket, Finley went from an average to a very good quarterback. Where he struggled, however, was when lineman were in his face, causing him to frequently make game-changing errors. If the defensive front can create pressure, turnovers will be forced.
Skai Moore’s versatility and experience will be a fresh resurgence to the Gamecock defense, and his return could mean big things not only in this game, but in the future as well. He and fellow senior Bryson Allen-Williams make up one of the best LB duos in the SEC, as the two can make plays in the running lanes as well as hang with tight ends and slot receivers in coverage. The two of them, as well as sophomore T.J. Brunson, will be a force to be reckoned with, especially when it comes to neutralizing the versatile Jaylen Samuels.
The opener will be decided by the battle in the trenches, no matter how good South Carolina’s receiving corps may be. If the running game can get started early and often, and if the revamped defensive line can consistently force pressure, the Gamecocks can look to start the season 1-0 for the third consecutive season.