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North Carolina at South Carolina

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College football is back and the Thursday night schedule opens up with several big games. A theme of the opening weekend will be the SEC vs. the ACC with three big opening weekend games in the national spotlight, starting off with North Carolina visiting South Carolina. Here is a preview of the Thursday night game to kick off the season.

Match-up: North Carolina Tar Heels at South Carolina Gamecocks
Venue: Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina (grass)
Date: Thursday, August 29, 2013
Time/TV: 6:00 PM ET - ESPN
Line: South Carolina -12.5, Over/Under 56
Last Meeting: 2007, South Carolina (-7.5) 21-15 at North Carolina

After back-to-back seasons finishing up with a record of 11-2, expectations are extremely high for South Carolina heading into the ninth season for Steve Spurrier in Columbia. The Gamecocks were ranked as high as #3 in the nation last season and they soundly defeated eventual SEC East champion Georgia. Last season, South Carolina had to play LSU in the SEC West draw, this year they will face a more favorable path playing Arkansas and Mississippi State from the other side.

South Carolina boasts the most recognizable defensive player in college football in defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney, a highly regarded junior that will be in contention for the #1 pick in the NFL draft next spring. The Gamecocks allowed just 18 points per game last season, but they actually allowed almost 50 more yards per game compared with the 2011 season. While Clowney and a few other notable defenders return including strong safety Brison Williams and both starting cornerbacks, the Gamecocks lost six of their top eight leading tacklers from last season.

On offense, South Carolina scored 31 points per game last season, but it came on just 377 yards per game as the Gamecocks ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in most offensive categories. Injuries did take a toll last season with star running back Marcus Lattimore lost late in the year and starting quarterback Connor Shaw in-and-out of the lineup at times, playing in just nine games. Shaw returns this season and the offensive line is a veteran group that should be successful. There is some experience in the receiving corps led by Bruce Ellington, but no receiver had more than 45 catches for South Carolina last season.

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The Gamecocks will be led by its defense as despite some inexperience up front, there is elite talent with Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton making an impact in limited time last season and expected to have big seasons with the attention that Clowney will draw. The secondary also figures to be one of the better units in the conference and they will be tested early in the season with two strong quarterbacks in opposition the first two weeks.

While no one disputes the supremacy of the SEC, the opening weekend provides a great opportunity for the new look ACC, expanded to 14 teams and seeking a more national presence. In addition to this game, Clemson will battle Georgia and Virginia Tech will take on Alabama in big non-conference games between the ACC and SEC. If the ACC wins even one of the games, it will have to be considered a success for the conference given the stature of the three SEC foes involved, a fair commentary on how dominant the SEC has been in recent years.

North Carolina has been a consistent football program in recent years, but the Tar Heels have not been able to breakthrough and compete for a major bowl spot. The Tar Heels actually would have won the ACC Coastal division last season in a three-way tiebreak, but they were not eligible for the postseason. Coach Larry Fedora is in his second season in Chapel Hill after a successful run at Southern Miss and he has a veteran team hoping to deliver that breakthrough season this year.

Bryn Renner is one of the more accomplished quarterbacks in the country, passing for over 3,000 yards with over 65 percent completions last season. In his two seasons as a starter, he has thrown for 52 touchdowns with just 20 interceptions. The Tar Heels will miss versatile running back Giovani Bernard, who was a great threat out of the backfield as well as on kick returns and now is currently rising up fantasy draft boards with the Bengals. A.J. Blue and Romar Morris both saw significant time last season, so there will be options for the Tar Heels. The offense also returns the top two receivers from last season with receiver Quinshad Davis and tight end Eric Ebron, who both possess great size that few defenses can match up well against. North Carolina scored over 40 points per game last season and the Tar Heels should again feature one of the most productive offenses in the conference.

The questions marks for North Carolina, especially in this matchup come on the offensive line and on defense. Three young starters with limited experience move into starting roles on the offensive line this season and this is a very tough first assignment with Clowney and the talent of the South Carolina front four. Renner may not get the time he needs to have a productive night and without Bernard's game changing explosiveness, the Tar Heels may struggle to keep the chains moving even though the overall outlook for this offense is excellent.

On defense, North Carolina has the biggest questions at the linebacker position, needing to replace three players that contributed heavily last season, led by Kevin Reddick who was a first-team ACC performer. The secondary does have some experience led by last season's leading tackler safety Tre Boston, but in this matchup, the front seven will likely be more important. Last season, North Carolina allowed almost 26 points per game and the run defense had big problems in several games late in the season.

Opening the season on the road in a very tough venue will be a great challenge for North Carolina, but last season was the first season under Spurrier in which the Gamecocks did not lose a home game. Next week's game at Georgia is a bigger game for South Carolina in the big picture and while there will be no lack of focus, the team could get caught looking ahead to that huge SEC clash that could determine the division championship. This is a season-making opportunity for a North Carolina team looking to make a splash and this would be a huge win to spark what looks like it could be the best Tar Heels football season since 1997. South Carolina is a legitimate national title contender and the Gamecocks have not lost an opening game under Spurrier.

Line Movement: The line opened at -10.5 before a steady climb to -12 or -12.5 at most outlets early this week. The total has been fairly steady falling at some spots from 56.5 to 56.

Last Meeting: As a road favorite in an awkward non-conference game in mid-October of 2007, South Carolina jumped out to a 21-3 lead at halftime. North Carolina led by future NFL players T.J. Yates, Greg Little, and Hakeem Nicks actually ended up with a 398-282 edge in total yards as North Carolina climbed back into the game in the fourth quarter. Three interceptions proved to be too much to overcome as South Carolina held on, though the Tar Heels did take the cover as a 7.5-point underdog in the 21-15 defeat with the last touchdown coming with about three minutes to go in the game. Prior to that game, these teams had not met since 1991 despite the schools being just over 200 miles apart. It is a bit bizarre with the NFL talent on that Tar Heels team that this loss sent the 2007 Tar Heels to 2-5 en route to just a 4-8 season, but that has really been the story of North Carolina football over the years.

Series History: South Carolina has a 5-2 S/U, 4-3 ATS edge since 1981.

North Carolina Historical Trends: Since 2006, North Carolina is just 15-20-1 ATS on the road, going just 14-22 S/U. North Carolina is just 3-7 S/U the last two seasons in road games with a 3-6-1 ATS mark. North Carolina is 18-10-1 ATS in the last 29 games as an underdog, including going 7-2 ATS in the last nine instances as a double-digit underdog. The Tar Heels have not been an underdog of this magnitude since 2009, winning outright at Virginia Tech as a 14.5-point underdog. The Tar Heels were an underdog only once last season, losing by five as a slight underdog early in the season at Louisville.

South Carolina Historical Trends: South Carolina is 25-3 S/U and 17-10 ATS at home since 2009. Under Spurrier, South Carolina is 7-1 S/U but just 4-4 ATS in home openers, winning each of the last six S/U with covers in four of the last five. This is currently the lowest favorite line of any of those games and the lone loss came as a home underdog against Georgia to open the 2005 season. Under Spurrier, South Carolina is 21-14-2 ATS as a home favorite, losing outright just three times in those 37 games.

There are seven additional games Thursday night this week - here is a quick look at two of the other prominent games:

Mississippi at Vanderbilt 9:15 PM ET (ESPN)
Line:
Mississippi -3.5, Over/Under 53

Vanderbilt won by a single point in this matchup last season, the third win in a row for the Commodores in this series. In the second season for Hugh Freeze at Mississippi, the program has gained a lot of credibility with a solid first season and big recruiting scores. The experience edge is certainly with the Rebels as Vanderbilt replaces several key players on offense including quarterback Jordan Rodgers and star running back Zac Stacy. Mississippi had a 458-371 yardage edge in the game last season in Oxford, but settled for field goals often and came up just short. Both teams have sights on another productive bowl season and this is a very important game in the SEC standings to open the season. Vanderbilt has covered in 11 of the last 13 home games the past two seasons, but is just 5-10 ATS in the last 15 games as a home underdog. Mississippi is only 2-11-1 ATS in this series since 1999 and Mississippi is just 5-14 ATS as a road favorite since 2001.

USC at Hawaii 11:00 PM ET (CBSSN)
Line:
USC -23, Over/Under 54.5

USC makes another trip to the islands with many new faces a year after an incredibly disappointing season. USC was the #1 team in the preseason AP poll last season, but finished out of the poll by the end of the season, going 7-6 after posting only seven points in the Sun Bowl. USC plans to play two quarterbacks in the opener with no clear starter emerging and star running back Silas Redd is not making the trip due to a slowed injury recovery. Marqise Lee is coming off a historic season at wide receiver, making 118 catches for 1,721 yards and he will be the focus of the offense. In year two of the Norm Chow era for Hawaii, there are some positive signs emerging. The team has improved size and Ohio State transfer Taylor Graham is a promising option at quarterback. There is some experience on this team, but the rebuilding project is still in progress and this is mostly a young team and a team coming off a 3-9 season with ugly numbers on both sides of the ball last year. Hawaii has always been tough at home with a 21-16 ATS mark as a home underdog since 1999, while USC is just 7-17 as a road favorite since 2008. These teams met to open last season with USC winning, 49-10 in Los Angeles.

  
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