Tomorrow night, the Gamecocks travel to Raleigh to kick off the season against the NC State Wolfpack for the second straight year. Last year, Carolina blanked the Pack 34-0, but this is a new year with two new teams. Who will have the edge at each position? Let's find out...
Carolina sends out redshirt-sophomore Stephen Garcia, while State counters with redshirt-sophomore Russell Wilson.
Both are dual-threat QBs, making plays with both their legs and their feet.
Wilson was very impressive last year, completing 150 of 275 passes for 1,955 yards and 17 TD with one pick. While the completion percentage isn't great, the TD-to-INT ratio is amazing.
He also has some great leadership qualities, leading State to a bowl game after a rough start. This kid should get some Heisman hype before he's done in Raleigh. I look for him to improve his completion percentage this year and become an elite QB in the ACC.
On the garnet-and-black side, Stephen Garcia is at the helm.
Garcia finally saw the field last year, showing some promise but also looking lost at times. He still has a lot to learn about Spurrier's offense, but he is a very capable quarterback.
By the end of this year or next year he will have made his name known on the national scene. He will not do anything to lose this game, but I think that Wilson is a more dynamic quarterback at this point in time.
Edge: NC State. As much as I hate picking against Garcia, Wilson is a great quarterback. Hopefully we will be able to contain him, as the team has been practicing against similar QB Aramis Hillary to try and get a feel for Wilson's game.
South Carolina has a plethora of talented, but inexperienced, backs. True junior Brian Maddox has been named the starter for the game, but will likely split time with Jarvis Giles, Kenny Miles, and Eric Baker.
While all of these backs are inexperienced (Baker and Maddox got some touches last year, Giles and Miles are both freshman), they are extremely talented. Getting Giles was a huge pickup, as he was one of the top running backs in the nation. Miles darts around defenders like it's his job, as does Baker.
Maddox is a solid back who can grind it out. Add in Bryce Sherman, the short speedster, and there is a good amount of talent here. Now they just need to prove they can produce in a big game.
NC State has Toney Baker listed first on the depth chart, but I assume he will split carries with backup Jamelle Eugene, who had 95 carries for 442 yards and two TD's last season.
Both of these guys are seniors, so they have some experience, but I don't think they have the potential to be as dynamic as USC's backs.
Edge: USC. While they are inexperienced, the USC backs are extremely talented and could be a good surprise for this team.
South Carolina has senior leadership in Moe Brown and young talent in No. 2 receiver Tori Gurley and slot man Jason Barnes. Gurley is an unproven talent, but he is supposed to be a physical freak a la Sidney Rice. Expect Garcia to throw fade routes to him all day and watch him jump over his defender to get it.
Barnes is a talented young receiver, although he is in the doghouse right now for complaining to the media about Gurley getting the No. 2 spot.
Barnes had a breakout game last year against Ole Miss when he caught seven balls for 76 yards and two TD's while suffering some vicious hits. Barnes will want to go out and prove the coaches wrong, and will also want to put on a show for his family (he's from Charlotte), so I expect a good game from him.
USC also has some other talented young receivers in Stephen Flint, Matt Clements, and D.L. Moore, among others.
USC also has a potentially great tight end in Weslye Saunders. Saunders performed relatively well in Jared Cook's shadow last year, with 16 catches for 214 yards and three TD's.
Saunders is a big, powerful TE with the ability to shake would-be tacklers and pull in tough balls. Big Wes should have a breakout season this year.
On NC State's side of the ball Owen Spencer lines up at the No. 1 slot with Jarvis Williams lining up at No. 2. They are backed up by T.J. Graham and Darrell Davis, two relatively unproven players.
Spencer is a stud with 31 catches for 691 yards with five TD's last year. Williams is also a solid producer, with 26 catches for 432 yards and four TD's. While this isn't necessarily a dynamic receiving group, it does have some big play potential and is pretty solid all around.
At tight end is sophomore George Bryan, who saw a decent amount of action last year, catching 18 balls for 201 yards and four TD's. He is a good player, but disappeared near the end of the season last year. He is built and has a skill set similar to Weslye Saunders'.
Edge: USC, who has more overall depth at receiver. At any given time, there are four legitimate threats on the field (Brown, Gurley, Barnes, Saunders).
The biggest weakness for USC last year lost Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorenson but got a little better at the same time. Jarriel King, Garrett Anderson, and Terrence Campbell are all a year older and wiser, freshman T.J. Johnson is a powerful guard, and Quentin Richardson moves from special teams to take the right tackle spot.
This won't be a great unit, but it will be decent.
NC State's offensive line is an impressive unit, with four returning starters and a redshirt freshman who beat out a senior for the job. While some guys have moved around and are learning new positions, this is a relatively established unit.
They will create holes for State's RB's and give Russell Wilson some time back in the pocket.
Edge: NC State. After last year I need to see USC's O-line look great in a game before I pick them.
USC's great defensive line has been hit hard by suspensions, with DE Clifton Geathers and DT Ladi Ajiboye suspended for the game.
Cliff Matthews and Nathan Pepper are still there to anchor the line, and Devin Taylor and Travian Robertson are very capable fill-ins for Geathers and Ajiboye who could probably start at a lot of D-I schools.
There has been talk of running a 3-4 for this game, but I am not sure if that will happen. Despite the losses of Geathers and Ajiboye, the line should still be able to get some pressure, especially with the great linebacking corps behind them.
NC State starts four seniors on the line, ends Shea Mckeen and Willie "No Name" Young and tackles Leroy Burgess and Alan-Michael Cash. This is a very impressive line, but it does have some weaknesses.
They are notoriously slow starters, especially Young, so Carolina might be able to catch a good line instead of the great line that will be there by mid-season.
Depending on the play of Carolina's O-line, State's defensive line could cause havoc in the backfield or be relatively quiet.
Edge: USC. State's line is good but they start slow, and they are not an SEC unit like South Carolina's. The two replacements for Geathers and Ajiboye have seen playing time before, so I'm not too worried about them underperforming.
Carolina has the best linebacker you've never heard of in Eric Norwood. Norwood should be talked about with Brandon Spikes and Rennie Curran as one of the best LB's in the country, but is rarely mentioned.
He is set to break the Carolina career sacks record this season, and is the best player on the team far and away. I haven't even mentioned Rodney Paulk, Alonzo Winfield, or Shaq Wilson yet and there still is enough evidence for Carolina's linebacking unit being one of the best in the SEC.
Paulk will be solid as always alongside Norwood while Winfield holds down the Spur spot (a hybrid of a safety and a linebacker), and Wilson is an outstanding backup who can also hold his own should Carolina go to a 3-4.
Needless to say, USC's linebackers will be causing problems for NC State all day.
NC State's linebacking corps is pretty inexperienced, with a player who has only played in one game in his career (Audie Cole), a sophomore with some experience from last year but not a lot (Dwayne Maddox), and a hole at the third linebacker spot since the injury to senior Ray Michel.
His spot will be filled by Sterling Lucas, Terrell Manning, or Asante Cureton (any State fans with info on who's playing here, please post it below). The linebackers won't be a huge liability, but they won't be anywhere near as effective as USC's.
Edge: USC, by a lot. Norwood and company will create pressure on Wilson all day and track down Baker and Eugene. Probably the biggest mismatch in this entire rundown.
Carolina's DB's are a tale of two positions. On one hand, you have the corners, who are talented, fast, full of promise, but inexperienced.
On the other hand you have the safeties, who are proven SEC-quality ballhawks.
Talented junior Chris Culliver—a player with the potential to be an All-American some day—holds down the free safety spot while Darian Stewart—one of the most underrated players ever—moves from Spur to strong safety.
Should one of these guys go down, USC has a good amount of depth at safety, snagging four of the top 10 safeties in the country in this year's recruiting class. DeVonte Holloman would most likely be the guy to step in should something happen.
The cornerbacks are a different story. Goon Squad founder Akeem Auguste is back after a solid freshman year, and freshman Stephon Gimore (one of those four safeties) is likely to start beside him.
Gone are Captain Munnerlyn, Carlos Thomas, and Stoney Woodson, so there is a lot of youth here.
Addison Williams and C.C. Whitlock bring some experience to the mix, but neither of them has really made that much of a contribution to the team so far in their career. However, Carolina is Defensive Back U, so I am confident that these young players will do just fine
NC State has some inexperience at cornerback too, starting redshirt freshman C.J. Wilson at one spot alongside senior Koyal George, who has no career pass deflections, interceptions, or fumbles forced and only seven career tackles.
These are some talented guys, especially Wilson, but they will likely make some rookie mistakes.
State's safeties are more accomplished, with returning starter Clem Johnson (40 tackles, two picks last year) and sophomore Justin Byers, who had two picks and 21 tackles last year. These guys clearly have some talent, and could cause problems if they can mark Carolina's receivers well.
Edge: USC. Both team's cornerbacks and safeties situations are similar, but it seems like USC is a little better at both positions.
USC will have junior Spencer Lanning handle both the punting and the place-kicking duties, while redshirt freshman Adam Yates will be the kickoff specialist.
Lanning was the punter last year and did relatively well with an average punt of 42.1 yards, good enough for sixth in the SEC and 28th in the nation.
His place-kicking skills are a little muddier, as many people thought Yates was going to win that job until he injured his leg. We will see how Lanning does; unfortunately, he has some big shoes to fill after replacing Mr. Irrelevant Ryan Succop.
Josh Czajkowski handles the kicking duties for NC State and Jeff Ruiz is the punter. Czajkowski connected on 16 of 19 field goals last year with a long of 42 yards and 33 of 34 extra points. Ruiz has not played a college down yet. There is a lot of inexperience here for both teams.
Edge: USC. Although it's really a toss up since one team has a proven punter but no proven kicker, and vice versa. I'm choosing USC because if Lanning struggles Yates can step in depending on his health.
USC will have Chris Culliver return kicks and Akeem Auguste return punts. Both are blazing fast with good agility. Really, the fact that Culliver never took one back last year may have been the biggest upset of the year.
Culliver routinely broke free for big gains, usually being taken down by the kicker or being caught. If he can improve that aspect of his return game this year, he will be deadly.
Auguste has not taken kicks back yet, but could easily be a great returner. He has some big shoes to fill, as Captain Munnerlyn was a dynamic returner last year.
A darkhorse return candidate is Trindon Holliday 2.0, Bryce Sherman. Sherman switched from track to football this year and is incredibly fast. The only thing keeping him from being a great college football player is his 5'6", 155 lbs. frame.
However, he could be a great kick returner because not only is he fast, he is extremely agile.
T.J. Graham will take back both the kicks and the punts for State. He is a very good returner, bringing a kick back for a TD last year and racking up yards on both punt and kick returns.
Graham's a dynamic returner, and could hurt USC if he gets space.
Edge: NC State. Carolina has some talented returners, but since Auguste isn't proven and Graham is I gave the nod to State.
Steve Spurrier is a coaching legend. Sure, he may have lost some of it since his days at Florida but he is still capable of willing a team to victory. Some people say he's lost the passion, but I know that's not true.
Last year I was on the sidelines 20 feet from him for the Wofford game, and when Dion Lecorn scored the game winning touchdown, The Old Ball Coach jumped into the air in excitement.
He can still coach with the best of them, and I think the people who say this may be his last year have no idea what they're talking about.
For NC State you have Tom O'Brien. O'Brien was a good coach at Boston College, but he hasn't had that much success at State yet. I personally think he is overrated and haven't forgotten how he abandoned BC for State. If State wins this game, it will be in spite of him.
Edge: USC. Spurrier is a much better coach than O'Brien.
Carolina's motivation is to get off to a good start after the bad ending to last season. They also have been motivated by Willie Young's trash-talking, most notably his jabs at Spurrier, Garcia, and Weslye Saunders.
The Cocks would also love nothing more than to come into Carter-Finley Stadium and suck the life out of the NC State fans on national TV, especially because State has been playing this game up so much, handing out "Beat Carolina" t-shirts and towels, and building a Noise Meter.
Also, Carolina are four-point underdogs, so they would love to prove the oddsmakers wrong.
State still remembers the 34-0 embarrassment they suffered last year, and no matter what they did the rest of the year, the fact that they got crushed on ESPN's Opening Night hung over them. State fans also would love to beat an SEC team, taking the mighty conference down a peg. This is a budding rivalry, and State doesn't want it to turn into one of the Notre Dame-Navy sort.
Edge: USC. Young's comments will ring fresh in every Gamecock's ear as they step on the field tonight.
Obviously NC State has the advantage here, as they are the home team. However, there will be a coalition of Carolina fans travelling north, myself included, so it won't be too overwhelming for Carolina. Plus, after playing in places like Sanford Stadium and The Swamp, Carter-Finley will seem like a golf tournament.
It will be a close game, but I think USC will win a nail-biter.
USC 21 NC State 17
That's it for this preview, I'm heading up to Raleigh in the early afternoon, but if I get the chance to write anything else before I leave I will. Also, if I'm able to find wireless and am coherent enough to write, I will write a recap of the game. If not, expect one by the end of the weekend.