Southern football takes center stage
Thanks to a certain televised family of quacks, perceptions about the South are changing.
One perception, however, remains unchanged about the region. Football is done better in the South. Across the country, the southeast United States has earned the reputation of having the greatest concentration of elite college football nationwide.
Two of the teams that perpetuate this stereotype will open the season against each other Thursday, Aug. 29, as the South Carolina Gamecocks will welcome the North Carolina Tar Heels to Williams Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. This battle of the Carolinas will be the first meeting between the two schools since 2007, and will take place as the first game of the 2013 college football season.
Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora is faced with quite a challenge. A year after North Carolina finished 8-4 and sat atop the Coastal Division standings, but were ineligible to compete for the Atlantic Coast Conference crown, the second-year head coach will attempt to get his team back to a bowl game. That mission begins in two weeks against Steve Spurrier's Southeastern Conference powerhouse.
Each team lost one of the nation's top running backs from last season. North Carolina lost Gio Bernard to the Cincinnati Bengals, who drafted him in the second round of the NFL Draft. South Carolina will be without Marcus Lattimore, who is recovering from a catastrophic knee injury that damaged his ACL, MCL and PCL.
Due to the injury, Lattimore's draft stock took a hit and he went from being a surefire first round draft pick to a sixth-round selection of the San Francisco 49ers. Without him, the Gamecocks finished their season without blemish and proved they could sustain success. They rolled up victories against Arkansas, Wofford, Clemson and Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
The last time South Carolina lost a game outside its conference was in 2010 when the Gamecocks lost to Florida State in the Chick-fil-a Bowl. Aside from that loss, Spurrier's squad has won four straight against the ACC, all wins over Clemson.
Conclusions are not easily drawn in college football. It seems easy to say that because Clemson is consistently among the ACC's best teams and South Carolina has dominated their season series, the Gamecocks must be superior to anything the ACC has to offer. Such a deduction cannot be made responsibly, however, because football is a game of matchups.
Tar Heel quarterback Bryn Renner will be throwing against a secondary that returns all four of its starters. As a whole, South Carolina ranked 11th nationally in total defense last year. It's successes were predicated on a strong defensive line that created the sixth most sacks in college football.
Led by junior defensive end and likely No. 1 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, Jadeveon Clowney, the Gamecocks' front will be a handful for the Tar Heels to handle.
North Carolina has surely seen the tape from last year's game against Clemson when Clowney recorded 4.5 sacks against the Tigers. It's task will be to somehow offset his power and speed with double-teams and other various schematic alterations. This could affect tight end Eric Ebron's effectiveness in the passing game if he is asked to chip in with blocking help.
At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, Ebron is one of the country's most explosive offensive weapons and can be hugely invaluable in situations where he creates mismatches with smaller defenders. A graduate of Greensboro-based Smith High School, Ebron must stretch the middle of the field and expose weaknesses in the daunting "D" if North Carolina has a chance to spring the upset.
Whether the northernmost Carolina can topple its bordering neighbor or the aforementioned Clemson can defeat Georgia on the first weekend of the season, Week 1 will be an excellent barometer for the ACC and its fans. The football universe will know more about the state of SEC dominance and how far their fellow southern schools have come in catching up to them.
Staff Writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 888-3575, or firstname.lastname@example.org.