Week 1 Preview: South Carolina vs. North Carolina

Published on 6/22/23 at 6:10 p.m. Eastern.
Updated on 9/1/23 at 12:49 p.m. Eastern.

North Carolina and South Carolina will resume their border rivalry in Week 1 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. As of June 22, most books had the Tar Heels installed as 1.5-point favorites. Circa had the total at 61.5 points, while FanDuel had the number at 63.5. FanDuel also had UNC at -120 on the money line, with the Gamecocks at even money.

UPDATE 9/1/23: The line has been UNC at -2.5 at most books since mid-July. The total is now in the 64 to 65 range, while the Gamecocks are +115 on the money line.

Mack Brown’s team finished 2022 with four consecutive losses. The slide started with a 21-17 home loss to Ga. Tech as a 22-point home ‘chalk.’ Then in the regular-season finale, UNC lost a 30-27 decision to NC St. in overtime as a 6.5-point home favorite.

In the ACC Championship Game, Clemson spanked the Tar Heels 39-10 as a seven-point favorite. With 19 seconds left at the Holiday Bowl out in San Diego, Oregon got a six-yard touchdown pass from Bo Nix to Chase Cota on a fourth-down play to secure a 28-27 comeback victory. Even though the game-winning extra point hit the left upright, it still went in to send Brown’s team spinning into the offseason.

UNC covered the spread as a 13-point underdog against the Ducks, but it allowed a 10-point lead with seven minutes remaining to get away. Redshirt freshman QB Drake Maye threw three TD passes in the first half, but his team had to settle for 19 and 44-yard field goals from kicker Noah Burnett in the fourth quarter as its only second-half points.

The first big issue of UNC’s offseason was keeping Maye in Chapel Hill. Brown claimed Maye “turned down a whole lot of money” to transfer. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, who lost his best player, WR Jordan Addison, to USC via the transfer portal prior to the 2022 season, claimed Maye had two schools offer him $5 million NIL opportunities.

Whatever the case, Maye stayed loyal to UNC and is back for one more season before taking his immense talent to the NFL. Brown was unsuccessful in keeping offensive coordinator Phil Longo around. He bolted for Wisconsin to join Luke Fickell’s staff.

Maye was pleased with the hire of his new play caller, though. That’s former Auburn OC and Troy head coach Chip Lindsey, who spent 2022 on Gus Malzahn’s UCF staff as OC and QBs coach.

North Carolina finished 2022 with a 9-5 straight-up record and a 6-7-1 against-the-spread record. The Tar Heels went 6-0 in one-possession games before losing to Ga. Tech, NC St. and Oregon by eight combined points. They won all six of their true road games, collecting victories at Appalachian St. (63-61), at Ga. St. (35-28), at Miami (27-24), at Duke (38-35), at Virginia (31-28) and at Wake Forest (36-34).

UNC’s other loss came at home when it had two weeks to prepare for Notre Dame, which won 45-32 as a 2.5-point road underdog. It was one of many dreadful defensive efforts for the Tar Heels, who allowed at least 28 points in nine of 14 games. For the season, the defense gave up an average of 30.8 points per game.

North Carolina returns nine starters on offense and eight on defense. The defense brings back its top-five tacklers and eight of its top 10.

The co-defensive coordinators are Charlton Warren and Tommy Thigpen, a former three-time All-ACC linebacker for the Tar Heels from 1989-1992 during Brown’s first run in Chapel Hill. Warren and Thigpen also work with Gene Chizik, the former Auburn HC who is the Assistant HC of the Defense.

Senior LB Cedric Gray is the leader of the defense. He’s a preseason second-team All-American and first-team All-ACC pick in Phil Steele’s magazine. He’s joined by LB Power Echols, a preseason second-team All-ACC selection.

Gray garnered fourth-team All-American honors last year when he finished tops in the ACC and third in the country in tackles with 145. He added 12 tackles for loss, six passes broken up, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions and one sack. Echols produced 103 tackles, five TFL’s, two PBU, two sacks, one forced fumble and one interception.

UNC only lost two players on offense, but WRs Josh Downs and Antoine Green will be sorely missed. Downs missed three games last season and still amassed 94 receptions for 1,029 yards and 11 TDs. In 2021, he hauled in 101 catches for 1,335 yards and eight TDs.

Downs was a third-team All-American in 2021 and a second-team All-American last year. Green missed five games with injuries last year, but he still had 43 receptions for 798 yards and seven TDs.

Maye ended up being an upgrade from Sam Howell, who is the program’s all-time leader in career passing yards (10,283) and is likely going to be the Washington Commanders’ starter in Week 1 if he can hold off veteran Jacoby Brissett in training camp.

Yes, Maye was that good. He completed 342-of-517 passes (66.2%) for 4,321 yards with a 38/7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Maye also ran for a team-best 698 yards (937 before subtracting sack yardage) and seven TDs.

According to 247Sports, UNC brought in the nation’s No. 28 recruiting class. There are 30 newcomers, including 10 transfers. 247Sports ranked the Tar Heels’ transfer-specific imports No. 33 nationally. There are eight four-star players, with six from the high-school level and two from the portal.

The four-star transfers are ex-East Tennessee St. cornerback Alijah Huzzie and former Kent St. WR Devontez Walker. In four years with the Buccaneers at the FCS level, Huzzie started 30 games and recorded 155 tackles, 42 PBU and 10 interceptions. He was a first-team All-SoCon selection last year when he had 59 tackles, 16 PBU, six interceptions and 2.5 TFL’s.

Walker played in 12 games for the Golden Flashes in 2022, producing 58 catches for 921 yards and 11 TDs. He also had 29 rushing yards and one TD on just three attempts for a 9.7 yards-per-carry average. Walker led the MAC in TD catches and was second in receiving yards.

UPDATE: The NCAA denied Walker’s waiver to become eligible in 2023, so he’s ‘out’ vs. South Carolina and presumably for all of 2023 unless UNC can win some sort of appeal. 

UNC added ex-Ga. Tech WR Nate McCollum from the portal as well. McCollum enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2022, catching 60 balls for 655 yards and three TDs. He also had 56 rushing yards and one TD on six carries for a 9.3 YPC average.

Two of UNC’s six four-star prospects from the prep level are WRs. The hope is that Chris Culliver and/or Christian Hamilton can contribute right away. Culliver and Hamilton were ranked No. 4 and No. 12 overall, respectively, in terms of recruits from the state of North Carolina at 247Sports.

Despite the losses of Downs and Green, Maye still has familiar faces to work with, too. There’s junior tight end Bryson Nesbit, who had 35 receptions for 507 yards and four TDs in 2022. Also, TE Kamari Morales had 29 catches for 358 yards and four TDs.

Maye spreads the wealth around to lots of targets. WRs JJ Jones (24 catches for 434 yards and two TDs), Kobe Paysour (29/324/4 TDs), Gavin Blackwell (18/239/1 TD) and John Copenhaver (15/222/0) return. Along with the two transfers and two four-star freshmen WRs, this unit is ranked No. 2 in the ACC and No. 13 nationally in Phil Steele’s magazine.

In Steele’s National Unit Rankings, the Tar Heels are ranked No. 4 at QB, No. 41 at RB, No. 30 on the OL, No. 37 on the DL, No. 20 at LB and No. 22 on special teams. They’re unranked in the secondary that lists the top-66 units. UNC’s DBs are ranked No. 12 out of 14 ACC teams.

As for the RBs, it’s a deep group with Elijah Green, Omarion Hampton, Caleb Hood, DJ Jones and George Pettaway. Green had 558 rushing yards, eight TDs and a 4.3 YPC average last season. He also made 17 catches for 107 yards and one TD.

Hampton produced 401 rushing yards, six TDs and a 4.6 YPC average, in addition to six receptions for 40 yards and one TD. Hood, Jones and Pettaway had 250, 124 and 93 rushing yards, respectively, with Pettaway going for two rushing TDs and Jones for one. Hood had 13 catches for 119 yards and one TD, while Jones had 12 receptions for 102 yards and one TD.

Four starters return on the offensive line and the group has 137 career starts among them. The lone loss is OT Asim Richards, who was a third-team All-ACC selection in 2022. However, the Tar Heels are hoping to fill his shoes with Willie Lampkin, a transfer from Coastal Carolina who can play center or guard and was a three-time All-Sun-Belt selection.

In Steele’s preseason Power Rankings, UNC is No. 22 and South Carolina is No. 35.

Shane Beamer’s team finished 2022 with an 8-5 record both SU and ATS. The Gamecocks shook off a 1-2 start to win four games in a row and break into the national rankings at No. 25. However, they saw that surge end with a head-scratching 23-10 loss to Missouri as 3.5-point home favorites.

After winning 38-27 at Vanderbilt, South Carolina got smashed 38-6 at Florida as an eight-point road underdog. The Gamecocks returned home to face fifth-ranked Tennessee, which had beaten Alabama and took its only previous loss at top-ranked Georgia, as 22-point underdogs.

Nevertheless, Beamer’s bunch produced its best performance of his tenure and drilled the Volunteers, 63-38, as QB Spencer Rattler completed 30-of-37 passes for 438 yards and six TDs without an interception. Next, South Carolina ended a seven-game losing streak to bitter rival Clemson by going into Death Valley and rallying to capture a 31-30 win over the seventh-ranked Tigers as a 14-point road underdog.

Rattler threw for 360 yards and two TDs, including a 72-yard TD pass to Antwane ‘Juice’ Wells that cut Clemson’s lead to 30-28 late in the third quarter. Mitch Jeter, who made all 11 of his field-goal attempts in 2022, hit the go-ahead FG from 35 yards out with 10:54 left. The defense shut down the Tigers from there.

South Carolina lost a 45-38 decision to Notre Dame at the Gator Bowl as a five-point underdog, but it was a thrilling game and couldn’t put a damper on the team’s late-season surge. Then Rattler and Wells chose to return to school for another year, igniting optimism galore heading into 2023.

But there were some offseason disappointments. Three of the team’s best players – TE Jaheim Bell, RB Marshawn Lloyd and DE Jordan Burch – opted to transfer to other schools. Bell landed at FSU, Lloyd went to USC and Burch ended up with Oregon. TE Austin Stogner also bolted for Oklahoma, where he had played previously before transferring along with Rattler.

But Beamer re-tooled the roster via the portal, snagging 10 transfers, including three four-star players. Ex-Western Kentucky TE Joshua Simon and former Arkansas TE Trey Knox hope to replace Bell and Stogner’s production. In four seasons with the Hilltoppers, Simon had 86 receptions for 1,146 yards and 15 TDs. Knox had 81 career catches for 892 yards and nine TDs in four years with the Razorbacks.

The other four-star transfer is DE Jaron Willis, who didn’t play as a freshman at Ole Miss in 2022. Beamer added more DL depth with former Syracuse DT Jatius Greer, who had 33 tackles, 6.5 TFL’s, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one PBU for the Orange last year.

Beamer signed three offensive linemen out of the portal – ex Charlotte IOL Jaxon Hughes, former Western Illinois OT Sidney Fugar and ex-Yale OT Nick Gargiulo, who is moving to guard after starting 14 games for the Bulldogs at tackle in the last two seasons. Fugar came out of spring practice listed as the starter at left tackle, as did Gargiulo at left guard.

The Gamecocks lost three starters on the o-line, but they bring back OT Jakai Moore (19 career starts) and center Vershon Lee, who is changing positions after starting 17 games at guard and tackle (16 at OG, 1 at OT) the last three seasons.

South Carolina’s 2023 recruiting class is ranked No. 17 nationally. The Gamecocks signed 23 incoming freshmen and one juco player. The prize is 6-foot-5, 225-pound athlete Nyckoles Harbor out of Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. He’s a five-star WR who might start as early as the opener vs. UNC.

The Gamecocks have 10 incoming freshmen who were four-star recruits, and the juco transfer, DT Elijah Davis, was also a four-star signee. Eight of those 11 four-star players enrolled early and participated in spring practice.

Beamer and his staff were extremely pleased with the play of true freshman LB Grayson ‘Pup’ Howard, a Jacksonville Andrew Jackson HS product who appears to be in line for immediate playing time. Howard enters the fray at a position of a need after losing veteran LBs Sherrod Greene and Brad Johnson to graduation. This group does get starting LB Mo Kaba back after he sustained as season-ending injury in Week 3 last year.

In Steele’s National Unit Rankings, South Carolina is ranked No. 7 at QB, No. 21 at WR, No. 22 in the secondary and No. 1 in special teams. However, the RB, o-line, d-line and LB groups were unranked, and Steele takes the rankings of most position groups into the mid-60s.

The defensive line is losing the production of Burch, who bolted for Oregon after producing 60 tackles, 14 QB hurries, 7.5 TFL’s, 3.5 sacks and one fumble recovery in 2022. DT Zacch Pickens, who was a third-round pick by the Bears in the 2023 NFL Draft, and DE Gilber Edmond (10 starts LY) are also gone.

As a true freshman in 2022, strong safety Nick Emmanwori started 12 of 13 games and led his team in tackles with 85. He also recorded two QB hurries, one fumble recovery, one TFL and one PBU. Free safety DQ Smith was also a true freshman last season and started 11 times. Smith had 54 tackles, five PBU, two QB hurries, two interceptions, one pick-six and one sack.

Junior David Spaulding sustained a season-ending injury in late September of last year, but he’s back to start at nickleback. In 19 career games, Spaulding has 35 tackles, seven PBU, three interceptions for 111 return yards, two pick-sixes and two forced fumbles.

Senior CB Marcellus Dial, who Steele tabbed as a preseason third-team All-SEC pick, has started 17 games in his two seasons after arriving in Columbia as a juco transfer. He produced 45 tackles, 12 PBU, three interceptions and one TFL in 2022. The other starting CB will be junior O’Donnell Fortune, who started two games last year and had a pair of interceptions.

South Carolina’s new OC is Dowell Logains, who has been the TEs coach at his alma mater (Arkansas) for the last two years. He’s previously had OC stops in the NFL with the Jets, Dolphins and Bears.

Logains has two outstanding pieces to work with in Rattler and Wells, who is a preseason first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American in Steele’s magazine. Wells finished 2022 with 68 receptions for 928 yards and six TDs.

Rattler completed 66.2 percent of his passes for 3,026 yards with an 18/12 TD-INT ratio. He also had three rushing TDs. The former Sooner showed his toughness in dealing with suspect o-line play, especially in September and October. In the last three games of the season, Rattler was playing as well as any QB in the country.

Logains has a versatile weapon in Dakareon Joyner, who has played at QB, RB and WR in 39 games across five seasons at South Carolina. He has 325 career rushing yards, four TDs and a 5.1 YPC average. Joyner also has 45 career catches for 442 yards and three TDs.

He’s completed 29-of-42 passes (69.0%) for 430 yards and two TDs without an interception. Joyner also plays on special teams and can contribute in the return game.

Beamer’s team has a season win total of 6.5 at FanDuel (‘under’ -144, ‘over’ +118). The Gamecocks’ odds to win the SEC East are 15/1, and they have 95/1 odds to win their first SEC Championship Game since joining the conference in 1992.

FanDuel has UNC’s season win total at 8.5 shaded to the ‘under’ at a -132 price. The Tar Heels have 9/1 odds to win the ACC Championship Game, the third-shortest number behind Clemson and FSU. Maye has 18/1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy. He shares the fifth-shortest number on the board.

This will be the sixth meeting between these schools since 2007. South Carolina has won four of those five encounters, going 3-2 ATS.

In the 2021 Mayo Bowl at this same venue in Charlotte, South Carolina dealt out a 38-21 pimpslap as a 12.5 to 13-point underdog. The Gamecocks cashed +410 money-line tickets at BetRivers.

Joyner was named MVP of the game after completing all nine of his pass attempts for 160 yards and one TD. He also contributed 64 rushing yards on 10 carries. Juju McDowell, who is expected to start at RB in 2023, had 52 rushing yards and one TD on just five attempts.

This will be a 7:30 p.m. Eastern kick on ABC.

PREDICTION: I’m on South Carolina +1.5 for one unit.

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