College football is finally here, and boy does it have quite the opening night. Tonight will see a number of quality match-ups to serve to the starving college football fan. We get an in-state rivalry game between Utah and Utah State, an SEC conference game between Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, a coastal war between Rutgers and Fresno State and USC will make a trip out to Hawaii to begin what could be a wild year for the Trojans. All of those games, and more -- hello there Bowling Green vs Tulsa -- will be fun to watch, but the headliner tonight is pretty obvious.
South Carolina vs. North Carolina. (Early Analysis)
We could call this a battle of North vs. South, but that Civil War reference does not appear to fit with both states being a part of the South in our history books. Regardless, the two schools will be playing for the 56th time in a series that dates back to 1903. Many will be tuning in tonight to watch the one who may be the bets player in college football this year, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and for good reason. Simply put, Clowney is a one-man wrecking crew and a highlight waiting to happen every time he lines up on the field. But that much you know. It has been documented over and over. At this point, you probably know about as much as there needs to be known about Clowney and you hope that your favorite NFL team can find a way to add him to your roster in the 2014 NFL Draft. Our friends at Optimum Scouting have Clowney on top of their juniors list for the 2015 NFL Draft, but it is a common though he would be at or near the top of the 2014 Big Board as well should he declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft next spring. And after an offseason in which some dared to suggest Clowney sit out the 2013 season to focus on training for the draft (stupid, of course), there is no reason to expect Clowney returns for the 2014 season in Columbia, South Carolina.
If you want to dig a little deeper in to tonight's game, which will surely be a love fest for Clowney, who are some other players you should at least pay attention to? Here are the five I know I will be paying attention too when not drooling over the latest Clowney tackle-for-loss-and-forced-fumble-and-fumble-recovery play...
Bryn Renner, UNC QB
Ask most people who the best quarterback in the ACC is and they will likely respond with Clemson's Tajh Boyd. that may be true, but North Carolina's Bryn Renner can carry his weight as well. Renner was third in the ACC last season in passer rating, behind only Boyd and Florida State's EJ Manuel, with a 150.79. Inside the red zone, Renner's completion percentage may have dipped but he threw 16 red zone touchdown passes. What holds Renner back a little is his accuracy on third downs with at least seven yards to go. If the Tar Heels are able to pick up some yards on first and second downs against the Gamecocks, Renner could become a difference-maker in an upset bid, although South Carolina's pass defense on third-and-long situations has been a tad disappointing. Renner has not thrown an interception in 91 straight attempts. How important is Renner to UNC this season? His profile page comes before Larry Fedora's in this week's game notes issued by UNC.
New Running Backs, Both Teams
South Carolina and North Carolina are each looking to replace outstanding running backs in the offense starting tonight. Steve Spurrier has called former Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore the best player -- not just running back -- in South Carolina's history. Sophomore Mike Davis will look to carry the load in the running game after rushing for 275 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman last fall. Quarterback Connor Shaw is actually the team's leading rusher back for 2013 but it should be Davis who becomes the go-to guy out of the backfield this season for the Gamecocks.
On the other side of the field, North Carolina must replace the ACC's leading rusher, Giovani Bernard (1,228 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2012). There are two running backs to watch for the Tar Heels, starting with sophomore Romar Morris, who is listed first on the depth chart. Expect to see some A.J. Blue as well.
Quinshad Davis, UNC WR
Photo: USA Today Sports
North Carolina's leading receiver from a year ago is back to lend a hand in the passing game. The sophomore led the Tar Heels with 776 receiving yards and five touchdowns last fall and will once again figure to be the main threat with Eric Ebron serving as a more than capable alternative. They will have their work cut out for them against a decent South Carolina secondary. Look for them to become a factor on those third-and-long situations, when South Carolina has been a bit suspect.
Jimmy Legree, South Carolina CB
Legree had three interceptions for the Gamecocks last fall, and when he happens to get his hands on the football he has the potential to pour salt on the wound. Legree returned one of his pick offs last season for a touchdown. Last season he intercepted an LSU pass 70 yards to set up another touchdown at the one-yard line. Staying away from Legree will be key for UNC, but easier said than done.
Connor Shaw, South Carolina QB
Photo: USA Today Sports
It is easy to overlook Connor Shaw when discussing SEC quarterbacks. Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and AJ McCarron make that easy to do, but Shaw was the SECs third-highest rated passer in 2012 (158.06) and he threw for 17 touchdowns against seven interceptions while recording the SEC's third highest yards per attempt (8.6 ypa). He certainly is not known for putting up big passing numbers, especially in an offense that has been able to run the ball so successfully, but with Lattimore gone it is possible we could see a bit more emphasis put on Shaw's role in the offense. He has shown he is able to run a little bit as well, so expect to see some of both form him tonight. In this offense, Shaw has grown in to his role and should be looked to take on a bit more this season as South Carolina carries heavy expectations for the season. This game should be a pretty good test for him, as North Carolina led the ACC with 16 interceptions last season and returns some veteran players in the secondary this year.
Steve Spurrier is 4-0 against North Carolina (Larry Fedora is 0-1, with a loss as head coach of Southern Mississippi)
South Carolina is 69-18-4 in season openers at home. Spurrier is 22-1 all-time in season openers. His lone loss? To South Carolina in 1989 as the head coach of North Carolina's rival, Duke.
South Carolina has won 17 straight games against non-conference opponents. Clemson was the last non-SEC team to defeat the Gamecocks (2008).
UNC has not defeated an FBS opponent to open the season since defeating Tulsa in 2000.
UNC's last win against an SEC opponent came against Tennessee in the 2010 Music City Bowl.
UNC's last win against a top ten team came against No. 4 Miami in 2004.
On this date in 1993, North Carolina upset another USC, the Southern Cal Trojans, in a season opener. Mack Brown's Tar Heels upset No. 18 USC 31-9 en route to a 10-3 season.