by Mike Potter
The opening weekend of the season is right now, and it should be a very interesting one for the Triangle’s Division I teams.
It all starts tonight at 6, when UNC (8-4 last season) visits No. 6 South Carolina (11-2) in an ESPN game at Williams-Brice Stadium. It’s a chance for the Tar Heels to show whether or not they should be in the nation’s Top 25, and a golden opportunity to shock the nation with an early-season upset.
The other two games will be on Saturday. N.C. State (7-6) will take on Louisiana Tech (9-3) at 12:30 at Carter-Finley Stadium in the first game for new Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren.
Then at 4 will come the third edition of the Bull City Gridiron Classic at Wallace Wade Stadium, with Duke (6-7 after its first bowl trip in 18 years) hosting cross-town rival N.C. Central (6-5) under new Eagle interim head coach Dwayne Foster.
UNC at South Carolina, tonight, 6 p.m.
The Tar Heels come off their season of NCAA probation looking to make a run at the ACC’s Coastal Division title and get back into the bowl picture.
But they start Coach Larry Fedora’s second season with what is probably their toughest challenge of the year.
USC, under traditional Tar Heel antagonist and one-time Duke head coach Steve Spurrier, is one of a handful of teams with a legitimate chance to win the national championship.
The Gamecocks’ No. 1 weapon is junior DE Jadeveon Clowney (6-6, 272), who may just be the best college football player in the country.
Clowney is already talking about putting some big hits on Tar Heel senior Bryn Renner, who is the best QB in the state and should be a solid NFL prospect.
“The fans have been excited about this game since it’s been on the schedule,” Fedora said. “They’ve talked a lot about it in the off-season. Everybody wants to talk about it. That’s part of the excitement and the players sense that. They know that. Again, I’ve said it before. It’s extra motivation in the winter conditioning, spring ball, and summer workouts. That’s just extra incentive to push a little bit harder. … I think if you want national respect, you've got to beat ranked opponents. So there's no doubt about it - these are games that if you want to gain that national respect, you've got to go out and you've got to perform.”
Renner passed for 3,356 yards and 28 TDs while completing 65.4 percent last season, and if he can match the yardage number this year he will become the Tar Heels’ all-time leading passer. His top returning target is sophomore Quinshad Davis (61 catches, 776 yards, 5 TDs), while senior A.J. Blue (433 yards, 9 TDs) is the top returning rusher.
USC senior Connor Shaw passed for 1956 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 67.5 percent last season. His top returning target is junior Bruce Ellington (40 catches for 600 yards and 7 TDs), while Shaw (131 carries for 435 yards and 3 TDs) is the top returning rusher.
The Tar Heels lead the series 34-17-4, with the most recent meeting a 21-15 Gamecock win in Chapel Hill in 2007. USC is listed as a 13-point favorite.
N.C. State vs. Louisiana Tech, Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
Doeren, who led Northern Illinois into a BCS bowl last season, has been consistent in saying he won’t know how good the Wolfpack is until there are live opponents on the other side of the ball.
Today against the Bulldogs, under new coach Skip Holtz, he’ll begin to find out.
“We’re excited to start the season off here and start going against other teams instead of ourselves,” Doeren said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity to not only play Louisiana Tech, but to play them at home at Carter-Finley, and my first opportunity as a coach to be in our stadium. I’ve heard so many great things about it. … Louisiana Tech is a team that has always been tough against BCS level opponents. Last year they had two big wins on the road with Virginia and Illinois, and then almost knocked off (Texas) A&M.”
With steady Mike Glennon graduated the Wolfpack has a quarterback battle between redshirt junior Pete Thomas, the former starter at Colorado State, and fifth-year senior Brandon Mitchell, a former wideout at Arkansas.
The top returning target is senior Quintin Payton (51 catches for 798 yards and 2 TDs), while junior Tony Creecy (127 carries for 476 yards and 5 TDs) is the top returning rusher.
Scotty Young, a transfer from Texas Tech who sat out last season, will call signals for the Bulldogs. His top returning target is junior Hunter Lee (31 catches for 398 yards and 2 TDs), while sophomore Kenneth Dixon (200 carries for 1184 yards and 27 TDs) is the top returning rusher.
State is listed as a 14-point favorite heading into the teams’ first meeting.
Duke vs. N.C. Central, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe says the main reason for this series is that it’s “great for Durham.”
NCCU’s preseason was marred by the sudden firing of Eagle coach Henry Frazier III after he was charged with violating a protective order filed by his ex-wife. Assistant head coach Foster immediately took the reins.
Both teams are coming off their best seasons in a while, with the Blue Devils going bowling and the Eagles having their first winner against a Division I MEAC schedule.
“I see us being able to play a lot of people early,” Cutcliffe said. “Our first few games are afternoon games. It’s going to be pretty warm, so we’re going to go ahead and look at possibly playing 60 or so people. You’ll see true freshmen. … Central is an athletic team. I looked at all their tape from a year ago. Their quarterback has really found himself. He’s playing good football. They’ve got quality size in the offensive line. They’re kind of rebuilding on the defensive front. I’m really impressed with their athleticism in the secondary. I like the fact that we’re playing a fast team in our opener.”
Anthony Boone steps in at QB for the graduated Sean Renfree for the Blue Devils. The junior Boone completed 49 of 95 passes for 531 yards and five TDs last season.
His top returning target is junior Jamison Crowder (76 catches for 1074 yards and 8 TDs), while sophomore Jela Duncan (109 carries for 553 yards and 4 TDs) is the top returning rusher.
“We’ve been focused on the task at hand,” Foster said. “That’s been our goal for these past couple of weeks. I think the role of getting into the position itself has been toughest. There are no (other) changes on the staff and we’re all on the same page. When you step into this (head coaching) role, all eyes are on you. … Last year against Duke we started off slow before we settled down. We have to know we deserve to be there. We have to minimize our turnovers and also create some turnovers.”
Senior Jordan Reid returns at QB for the Eagles after throwing for 1594 yards and 13 TDs with a 62.3 percent completion rate. His top returning target is senior Marvin Poole (29 catches, 352 yards, 2 TDs), while senior Andre Clarke (349 yards, nine TDs) is the top returning rusher.
Duke leads the series 2-0, winning the games by a combined score of 103-31 including 54-17 last year.
Duke is listed as a 33-point favorite.