Heels will need composure, big plays to down Gamecocks
Posted August 28, 2013
Updated August 29, 2013
Throughout the past few days and during much of the summer, North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora has framed the Tar Heels’ Thursday opener at No. 6 South Carolina (6 p.m., ESPN) as a rare opportunity.
Earlier this week, the second-year coach called the game “tremendous for exposure” and a chance for the Heels to create “a sense of excitement … not only statewide but in our recruiting footprint and really the nation.”
It was exactly 20 years ago – Aug. 29, 1993 – when then-UNC coach Mack Brown used virtually the same words and terms to describe his sixth team’s season-opening game at Southern Cal. On paper, that game was less imposing than the trip to South Carolina Thursday.
Although ranked 18th in preseason in ‘93, the Trojans hadn’t been a national contender since 1989 while Brown’s program, a preseason No. 20, was improving rapidly. Even so, Southern Cal had those five national champion banners and was favored by 5.5 points.
When the Heels won in a 31-9 rout, Brown had the breakthrough moment he needed to eventually produce a top-10 program. The ’93 Heels went on to finish 10-3 (6-2 ACC) with a competitive 24-10 loss to Alabama in the Gator Bowl.
Although the current program made significant progress (8-4, 5-3 ACC) in Fedora’s first season, the Heels probably don’t yet have enough talent and depth to make the jump to a double-digit regular-season winner.
But with quarterback Bryn Renner, tight end Eric Ebron and a lot of quickness on the edges, UNC (an 11-point underdog) will have a puncher’s chance against Steve Spurrier’s ninth Gamecock team.
Here are four checkpoints for the Tar Heels in order to have a chance to pull off the shock:
1. Poise: If the Heels lose their composure, South Carolina will win by three or more touchdowns.
The 80,000 or more fans in Williams-Brice Stadium can turn any given night into a feeding frenzy, and UNC will be playing at least five or six freshmen regularly.
2. Explosiveness: UNC’s offense is specifically designed to score fast and produce field-flipping plays. Succeeding on both fronts will be vital against South Carolina’s defense, which has NFL-like size and at least two or three future NFL starters.
It’s not the kind of defense that’s likely to give up long, clock-eating drives. The Heels will need to land a few haymakers to the head.
3. Replacing Gio on special teams: If the departure of Gio Bernard turns out to double as the end to UNC’s kick return advantage over opponents, the differential could be two wins over the course of the 12-game schedule.
Sophomores T.J. Thorpe, Sean Tarpley and Romar Morris are slated to do the majority of the kickoff and/or punt return work. They need to make something positive happen.
4. Flex: The new linebackers don’t have to be Lawrence Taylors and Kevin Riddicks. But in Fedora’s 3-4-4 scheme, those largely inexperienced linebackers do need to keep the Gamecock running backs in the middle of the field and out of the secondary. When opposing defensive backs are forced into a steady run-support routine, Spurrier gets aggressive and goes into his team-photo-under-scoreboard mode.
ACC Preseason Picks
1. Virginia Tech: There’s probably not a national top-20 team in the entire division, and all seven have a decent chance to win at least three conference games. That being the case, give me Frank Beamer as a tie-breaker.
2. Georgia Tech: The Jackets lost their mojo for a while after a pair of early-season overtime losses to Virginia Tech and Miami last season. Don’t expect a repeat.
3. Miami: The Hurricanes are the popular Coastal pick, but I’m still not convinced the program has found its bearings again.
4. UNC: Larry Fedora hasn’t talked about it, but he can’t like the first two conference games – at Georgia Tech (Sept. 21) and at Virginia Tech (Oct. 5).
5. Pittsburgh: In their first ACC year, the Panthers may be short on skill-position material but the offensive and defensive fronts are better than you might think.
6. Duke: Five of the first six games are in Durham, but the backside of the schedule is loaded with road trips. Despite heavy offensive personnel losses, David Cutcliffe will find a way to score his share of points.
7. Virginia: The quarterback situation is such a mess that it’s difficult to see the Cavs taking advantage of three home games to open the schedule.
1. Clemson: It all looks so good on paper that it’s easy overlook the fact that four ACC foes put up at least 31 points on the Tigers last season, including 49 by Florida State and 48 by N.C. State.
2. Florida State: With a new quarterback and a new defensive front, the Seminoles might want to watch their step Monday night at Pitt.
3. N.C. State: After Clemson and FSU, the Atlantic is as murky as the Coastal. But regardless of the sweeping transition in the coaching ranks, the Wolfpack has eight home games plus two on the road – Duke and Boston College – that shouldn’t be impossible.
4. Wake Forest: By Jim Grobe’s own description, 2012 was a disaster. And yet his team still won three conference games, five overall and should have whipped Maryland. Fifteen starters are back.
5. Syracuse: Down the stretch in ’12, the Orange beat Louisville, Missouri, Temple and then West Virginia 38-14 in New York’s Pinstripe Bowl. But that was all with Ryan Nassib at QB.
6. Boston College: Likeable Steve Addazio inherits a decent quarterback in Chase Rettig plus a fairly experienced defense.
7. Maryland: The Terps have some interesting parts, primarily versatile receiver Stefon Diggs, but 0-4 in the league on the road may be unavoidable with games at FSU, Wake, Virginia Tech and a finale at NCSU in the ACC See-Ya Bowl.
Follow Caulton Tudor on Twitter at @CaultonTudor.