The 2013 FBS season kicks off on Thursday night, as the sixth-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks play host to the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The Tar Heels are coming off a successful season in Larry Fedora's first year as head coach. They went 8-4 overall and finished 5-3 in the ACC, good enough for a first-place tie in the Coastal Division standings. However, NCAA sanctions prevented them from taking part in a bowl game.
The good news for UNC is that with its one-year postseason ban served, it has now cleared the shadow of its controversy of previous seasons and is primed for a bowl run in 2013.
The Gamecocks earned the No. 6 ranking in the AP poll, the highest preseason ranking in school history, thanks to their sustained success over the past few years. For the second straight season, they pulled off an impressive 11-2 overall record while winning six of its eight SEC contests, but just like in 2011, the 2012 campaign was not good enough to represent to SEC East in the conference championship game.
South Carolina was not selected for a BCS bowl and had to settle for a date with Michigan in the Outback Bowl, where they claimed a 33-28 victory. They've now won back-to-back bowl games and have played in the postseason in seven of eight years under head coach Steve Spurrier, who is optimistic that his team will take the next step into the nation's elite in 2013.
"Our goal is to win the SEC," Spurrier said. "We've never done it in school history. We're going to try our best to see if we can maybe win that one game or so we've been losing in the last couple of years and try to get to the championship game and try to win it."
This marks the 56th all-time meeting between these two programs, with UNC holding a 34-17-4 advantage. The squads haven't met since 2007, when the Gamecocks claimed a 21-15 victory.
UNC's high-flying offense in 2012 set several school records, including total points (487) and points per game (40.6), but that production will be tough to duplicate with the loss of All-American Giovani Bernard, who was the first running back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. The team will also have a gaping hole on its offensive line with the departure of Jonathan Cooper, also a 2012 All-America selection.
The Tar Heels still have hope for a successful offensive campaign in 2013 however, thanks in large part to the return of their signal-caller Bryn Renner, who was spectacular as a junior with 3,356 passing yards (.654), tossing 28 touchdowns paired with only seven interceptions.
"He really can take this thing where it's never been before," Fedora said of his quarterback. "He really can, because he has the arm strength, because he has the knowledge, because he feels comfortable, now he can just play...I think this year is just going to be a whole lot smoother for him."
Renner will have a couple of trusty targets to rely on this season in receiver Quinshad Davis (61 rec, 776 yards, five TDs) and tight end Eric Ebron (40 rec, 625 yards, four TDs).
Fedora expects big things out of his tight end, especially in the red zone. "He's going to give me 12 touchdowns," he claimed.
Without Bernard, UNC has a big void to fill in the backfield, and it will be up to sophomore Romar Morris (386 yards, two TDs) and senior A.J. Blue (433 yards, nine TDs) to step up their production with increased playing time.
UNC's defense wasn't nearly as strong as its offense a season ago, but it was still respectable in allowing 25.7 ppg, and the return of seven starters on that side of the ball will certainly help things in 2013.
With the loss of linebacker Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 12 TFL, 6.5 sacks) and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams (42 tackles, 7.5 TFL, six sacks), safety Tre Boston will assume the primary leadership position on the defense as he tries to improve upon an 86-tackle campaign.
Linebacker Tommy Heffernan enjoyed a breakout sophomore season with 73 tackles and is expected to be an even bigger factor this year without Reddick. Kareem Martin (15.5 TFL, four sacks) is dynamic on passing downs coming off the edge.
South Carolina's offense was a very efficient a season ago despite ranking in the bottom-half of the SEC in yards per game (376.5), putting up 31.5 ppg while scoring on greater than 80 percent of its red zone drives.
One of the biggest reasons for the Gamecocks' scoring success in 2012 was the play of quarterback Connor Shaw, who completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 1,956 yards with 17 touchdowns to just seven interceptions to go with 435 rushing yards and three more scores on the ground. Shaw is entering his senior season and is the program's all-time leader in competition percentage (.668), but expect Dylan Thompson (1,027 yards, 10 TDs, two INTs) to receive his fair share of snaps once again.
With the departure of Marcus Lattimore (662 yards, 11 TDs), arguably the nation's best running back in recent years when healthy, the Gamecocks have a big role to fill in the backfield. Mike Davis (275 yards on 52 carries) made the most of his limited opportunities last season and will have a chance to grab hold of the starting gig.
At receiver, Bruce Ellington returns after piecing together a solid campaign in 2012 (40 rec, 600 yards, seven TDs). His role is expected to increase even more in the absence of Ace Sanders (45 rec, 531 yards, nine TDs). Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd will occupy the other starting spots, although the duo combined for just 26 catches last year.
Defensively, the Gamecocks were one of the best in the country in 2012, allowing just 18.2 ppg and 315.5 ypg, and those numbers are only expected to improve with the return of perhaps the nation's most dominant force in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney had the best single-season in school history a year ago, tallying 54 tackles, 23.5 TFL, 13.0 sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Now a junior and anticipated to be a top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney is primed for his best season yet, and he is looking forward to causing havoc in the backfield once again.
"I like to pick at quarterbacks. That's what I do," Clowney said. "If they can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. You can tell if a player is scared if he looks at me every time before the ball is snapped."
The unit is far from a one-man operation, however. Brison Williams (52 tackles, two INTs) brings a veteran presence to the secondary, and Kelcy Quarles (eight TFL, 3.5 sacks) provides penetration from the inside.
The defense as a whole will need several inexperienced players to step up this season, as only four starters return.