7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: North Carolina -2.5, Over/Under: 64.5
College Football’s Labor Day Kickoff Weekend continues with a borderland rivalry, as the (No. 21) North Carolina Tar Heels battle the South Carolina Gamecocks in an ACC-SEC clash from Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Entering the fifth year of his second tenure at North Carolina, (Head Coach) Mack Brown has the trajectory of this program headed in the right direction. Fresh off a 9-5 campaign that featured a spot in the ACC Championship Game, the Tar Heels appear to be one of the few contenders within a league bereft of them. Why the optimism, you ask? Well, Brown’s charges were a stellar 9-1 last season, rising to thirteenth in the polls and sealing the Coastal Division in early November, before taking their foot off the proverbial gas pedal and dropping their final two games of the regular season. From there, they were blown out by (No. 11) Clemson in the ACC Title Game, before coming up just short of besting (No. 15) Oregon in the Holiday Bowl (27-28). Brown & Co had little trouble replacing the school’s all-time most prolific passer (Sam Howell), as (Sophomore Quarterback) Drake Maye (pictured above) exceeded expectations in his first season as the starter, setting a single season record for passing yards (4,321) and matching his predecessor’s record for touchdown passes (38). Furthermore, he became the first freshman QB in FBS history to throw thirty touchdowns in his first nine games, while also factoring heavily into the run game with a team-high in rushing yards (698). However, expectations are sky high for the Heisman candidate this year, as Maye will be counted on to carry a team that is also looking for significant improvement from a defense that was fairly poor in 2022. North Carolina allowed a woeful 30.8 points per game (102nd in FBS) on 436.5 total yards, including a dismal 271.3 versus the pass on a very generous 7.88 yards per attempt, with twenty-seven touchdowns opposed to nine interceptions. Only one of their four starters from the Secondary returns, which is probably a good thing altogether. With that being said, a total of seventeen starters returning on both sides of the football, the train of thought is that experience will do this team a wealth of good, while some tweaks to the coaching staff could help make the difference. Chip Lindsay replaces Phil Longo as Offensive Coordinator, while Charlton Warren and Tommy Thigpen will share duties coordinating the defense, as (former Auburn Head Coach and longtime Brown collaborator) Gene Chizik enters his second season as Assistant Head Coach-Defense. Looking at this particular matchup, North Carolina will be meeting their border rivals for the fifty-eighth time, owning a 33-20-4 lead in the all-time series, though they have met just twice over the last seven years. The last time that they met in a season opener, which was also coincidentally contested at Bank of America Stadium, resulted in an outright 24-20 victory for the Tar Heels, who were 11-point underdogs prior to kickoff. Two years later, they would face off in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, which was also played in Charlotte, though Brown’s charges were run off the field early, falling into an 18-0 hole in the second quarter, unable to climb their way out of it. From a betting perspective, North Carolina was a mediocre 6-7-1 against the spread last season, posting a 2-2-1 record against non-conference opposition and a 1-1 mark in games contested at neutral sites. In his second tenure in Chapel Hill, Brown is 24-27-1 against the spread, with an 8-8-1 record against non-conference opponents and a 3-3 mark on neutral fields. With that said, SEC competition has not been kind to them (go figure), with the Tar Heels covering only one of their last six encounters with schools from that particular conference. As far as this matchup with South Carolina is concerned, UNC has covered the line in just one of their last five meetings, including their most recent, that aforementioned 2021 Mayo Bowl, in which they were favored by 12.5 points only to lose outright by seventeen.
Meanwhile, South Carolina looks to build upon a strong finish to (Head Coach) Shane Beamer’s second season in Columbia. After going just 7-6 in his first season leading the Gamecocks, Beamer worked some magic against one of the tougher schedules in the FBS. Suffering back-to-back losses to (No. 16) Arkansas (30-44) and (No. 1) Georgia (7-48), SC would string together four consecutive victories, highlighted by 24-14 win over (No. 13) Kentucky in Lexington. That was good enough to push them into the polls for the first time since 2018, though it wouldn’t last with defeats to unranked Missouri (10-23) and Florida (6-38) over their ensuing three games. With that being said, Beamer saved his best for last, stringing together a pair of impromptu upsets over top-10 opponents, embarrassing (No. 5) Tennessee (63-38) before hitting the road and knocking off instate rival, (No. 7) Clemson (31-30). Similar to their opponent tonight, South Carolina thrived off the play of a star Quarterback of their own, as (Junior) Spencer Rattler (pictured above) gradually became the playmaker that Beamer envisioned when he opted to transfer from Oklahoma. A former number one overall recruit, Rattler’s failed to meet expectations in Norman, and though he started slowly in Columbia, he finished strong; Rattler tossed only two touchdowns in comparison to five interceptions through his first four games with the Gamecocks, while being held below 200 passing yards in five out of seven contests before erupting in that demolition of the Vols in which he totaled 438 yards and SIX touchdowns. Over the last three games of the campaign, he averaged 348.0 yards per game on a healthy 8.55 yards per attempt, with ten scores opposed to three interceptions. The ‘Cocks will need Rattler to be more consistent in 2022, for there isn’t a lot of experience around him, with just ten returning starters on both sides of the football. The defense could be in for a rude awakening in particular, with only four starters coming back from a unit that slipped mightily from their strong showing in 2021, yielding 28.8 points per game (88th in FBS) on 404.7 total yards, including a porous 198.0 against the run on 4.9 yards per carry. However, the Secondary is likely to be the bigger issue, for SC lost both starting Cornerbacks to the NFL Draft (Cam Smith and Darius Rush) along with (Free Safety) Devonni Reed. It also should be stated that this team benefitted greatly from excellent Special Teams play last season, though what else should we expect from the son of the legendary Frank Beamer. Indeed, the Gamecocks ranked number one in the FBS in Special Teams rankings; (Junior Kicker) Mitch Jeter was a perfect 11-of-11 on field goals, while (Junior Punter) Kai Kroeger averaged 43.2 net yards per punt, even throwing a pair of touchdowns along the way. Furthermore, (Senior Wideout) Xavier Legette racked up 441 yards on fifteen kick returns, including a 100-yard touchdown return against Texas A&M. Looking at this particular matchup, South Carolina may be trailing the all-time series by a considerable margin but have certainly owned their border rivals to the north of late, winning SEVEN of the last nine meetings. When they clashed in that aforementioned Mayo Bowl, Beamer’s charges began the affair with eighteen unanswered points and never looked back; the Gamecocks amassed a whopping 543 total yards of offense, including a staggering 301 yards on the ground, while the defense was tenacious with four sacks. From a betting perspective, South Carolina was a solid 8-5 against the spread last season, improving their record in that regard under Beamer to 15-11 over the past two seasons. During that period, they are a stellar 8-2 against the spread versus non-conference opponents, while posting a 1-1 mark at neutral venues. Furthermore, the Gamecocks have covered all but one of their last seven affairs contested at neutral sites as an underdog, which is the case tonight. As for this particular matchup with the Tar Heels, this is the fourth time in the last eleven years that they have met in the season opener, with the ‘Cocks winning in 2013 and 2015 before dropping that aforementioned encounter in 2019. Beamer and his coaching staff have done a good job of getting his troops ready for these openers, winning each of their first two during his tenure in Columbia, though after hammering Eastern Illinois (46-0) and Georgia State (35-14) in the last two seasons, UNC poses a considerable step upward in competition. On the injury front, (Senior Receiver) Antwane Wells Jr. is probable to participate in tonight’s affair after being hindered throughout the week of practice due to a lower body ailment. Wells was Rattler’s favorite target last season, reeling in sixty-eight receptions for 928 yards and six touchdowns, all of which led the team.