As the season opener draws closer, so too does the whirlwind of emotion that accompanies the return of football in our lives. The excitement, the anticipation, the unfettered optimism — and the existential dread.
The latter is especially potent when one's team happens to be squaring off against an opponent that isn't just the typical Week 1 layup. In that scenario, you don't get the luxury of easing into the season, or granted another week of entertaining the delusion that your team is an unstoppable juggernaut. Instead, the season will be quickly and starkly defined by the very first time your squad takes the field.
It is with this trepidation that I approach South Carolina's date with N.C. State. As I'll be attending with some Wolfpack grads, there's been a lot of discussion about the game — but none of it has been trash talk. It's not the kind of poor mouthing where we secretly believe our alma mater will pound the other team into into a pulp, either. We are, to a person, Deeply Concerned. So we've just been sort of cringing at each other and focusing more on our tailgating plans instead. It's not so much that we can't agree on the winner; it's more like we can't agree on the loser.
The more I've thought about the way South Carolina and N.C. State fans behave, the more I've come to see them as spiritual siblings of a sort. Both schools have the type of psychologically scarred fans who frantically shush anyone who starts hyping the team; who don't celebrate their latest poll ranking so much as they dread the inevitable, upcoming loss to Nowhere Directional College. And yet both fanbases also have vocal trash-talkers who seem immune to the program's numerous shortcomings, and folks who are certain their patience and can-do spirit will pay off one day — just you wait. It's a strange breed of optimistic nihilism: Nothing matters because this stupid team will never accomplish anything — but what if it did, and hey, doesn't it kind of look like it finally can?
Both football programs are the definition of mediocrity, hovering just slightly above .500, with the Gamecocks at .510 and the Wolfpack at .507. South Carolina's record has been volatile in recent seasons, with higher highs and lower lows, while N.C. State has been more steady with its average performance. The Wolfpack have flirted with signature wins and breakthrough seasons, but has also consistently courted disaster whenever on the precipice of bigger and better things. This is colloquially known as N.C. State Shit, a phenomenon every North Carolinian understands as the Murphy's Law maelstrom the Wolfpack seems perpetually trapped in. If the concept sounds familiar, that's because it operates from the same dark universe as the Chicken Curse, which has done its own tireless work in making South Carolina football suffer.
Remember when South Carolina scored one of its biggest wins in school history over a No. 1-ranked Alabama team in 2010, then immediately followed that up with a stunning loss at Kentucky? Yeah, N.C. State does that, too. Remember the times South Carolina has struggled mightily against — and even lost to — various "little brother" programs in the state? Yeah, N.C. State knows about that. Know how South Carolina is in a tragically deep hole to Clemson in the all-time football series? N.C. State can relate, and even had its own recent five-peat against North Carolina.
There are some differences, of course. N.C. State currently resides in one of the best divisions in the country with the likes of Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, which makes its path to the ACC Championship game an even more hopeless endeavor than South Carolina's road to Atlanta. The Wolfpack also labors under the unique humiliation of having to compete with Duke for the Tar Heels' rivalry affections, whereas the Gamecocks have Clemson's full attention regardless of sport or circumstance.
But it's not all bad for the Red and White from State. The Wolfpack boasts an impressive amount of active NFL quarterbacks (four) and has a winning record in its bowl appearances, two things that are incredible flights of fancy as far as South Carolina football is concerned. N.C. State also has seven ACC titles to its name, and although none have come since the conference started expanding, 1979 is still more recent than South Carolina's lonely league title in '69. Oh, and that's another thing — both schools were ACC charter members.
In case the programs weren't similar enough on cultural and historical levels, the all-time series is about as even as it gets, with South Carolina holding the edge at 27–26–4. Let's take a look at the past two times stoppable force met movable object, which also happened to be season openers.
2008: South Carolina 34, N.C. State 0 (Columbia)
This is, without exaggeration, one of the worst blowout victories I've ever witnessed. South Carolina starter Tommy Beecher — remember him? no? — threw four interceptions, including one in the opening minutes of the game, and was also sacked five times. N.C. State's Daniel Evans, not to be outdone, threw two of his own picks and posted the astonishing line of 4-of-12 passing for 37 yards. The Wolfpack also lost two fumbles and mustered just 138 yards of total offense.
Beecher was eventually replaced in the third quarter by Chris Smelley, who got the scoring rolling to add to South Carolina's commanding 3-0 — yes, 3-0 — halftime lead. The Gamecocks won but it was hard to feel good about it, especially with yet another quarterback controversy brewing under coach Steve Spurrier. To this day, this game remains near the top of my list in that exquisite category of Wins That Actually Felt Like Losses.
Bonus weird fact: Minutes into the game, USC defensive end Jordin Lindsey smeared Wolfpack freshman quarterback and eventual Super Bowl winner Russell Wilson into the turf, to the extent the stadium fell silent and he had to be carted off the field. It's hard to overstate how bizarre this game was.
2009: South Carolina 7, N.C. State 3 (Raleigh)
In a Thursday night matchup that kicked off the college football season and probably made most fans immediately regret it, the Gamecocks managed to be slightly less terrible in another clash of titans. Stephen Garcia led a South Carolina offense that challenged itself to not score by any means possible. Receiver Tori Gurley negated a 38-yard touchdown with offensive pass interference, two field goals were missed (with one not even being attempted because of a botched snap), and Garcia threw a pick that set up N.C. State's only score.
Again, the Wolfpack came to the rescue with its own brand of ineptitude. Russell Wilson survived this time, but N.C. State could only manage 133 total yards and gave up six sacks. The Wolfpack had a killer turnover as well, fumbling deep in its own territory to set up a short touchdown run by South Carolina's Brian Maddox. The game was not without some drama, however, as N.C. State had a chance at a late go-ahead touchdown before freshman defensive back Stephon Gilmore sealed it with a pass breakup. Gilmore's performance in this game, and on that play specifically, was the only thing that salvaged an otherwise miserable viewing experience for Gamecock fans and offered some hope for the future. He turned out OK, I think.
2017 in Charlotte: ???
It remains to be seen what will happen in the renewal of this rousing, unforgettable series. If recent history is anything to go by, it will be closely contested — and also the worst football game you'll watch all season, possibly even for the next five years. Regardless, N.C. State is a team that should regularly appear on South Carolina's schedule because it just makes sense.