by Joe Schwartz
N.C. State (0-0) v. South Carolina (0-0)
7 p.m., Sept. 3, Carter-Finley Stadium
TV: ESPN Radio: WRAL-FM 101.5
Key stats … Wolfpack Coach Tom O'Brien will be hoping to get off to a better start than last year, when the Gamecocks trounced N.C. State 34-0 on the opening weekend en route to a 2-6 run to begin the season. The Wolfpack closed on a four game win streak before heading to the Papajohns.com Bowl. South Carolina was just the opposite last season. A 5-2 start turned to a 7-5 finish and a loss in the Outback Bowl.
Tonight's game not only kicks off the season for USC and N.C. State but for the entire college football world. The nationally televised showcase game pitting ACC against SEC provides a platform for both teams to make a statement. N.C. State QB Russell Wilson, who was injured in last year's game, wants to show that he's healthy and that he's improved in the off-season. Counterpart USC signal-caller Stephen Garcia, a blue-chip recruit, wants to make good on his potential after splitting time as the starter last year.
After beating UNC, ECU and Duke last season, Wolfpack faithful claimed their team as the best in North Carolina (They didn't play Appalachian State, though.) Tonight they'll seek best in the Carolinas status. Whomever wins may be able to boast that for a while. The all-time series is tied 26 to 26 with four ties, and this is the last scheduled Gamecock-Wolfpack tussle for the foreseeable future.
South Carolina will win if … Russell Wilson gets hurt (see last year). Failing that, they'll need to execute forward-passing czar Steve Spurrier's complex scheme with new receivers stepping up. Garcia needs to manage the game and hope the team's vaunted defense holds up to the opening-night pressure.
N.C. State will win if … Wilson gets time to throw and can pick on the Gamecocks young, inexperienced secondary. The defense just needs to stay stout and stay at home as the Gamecocks try to dink and dunk their way up the field.
What people are saying about the game …
Spurrier: "I just want our players to know that this is a very good team we're playing. Sometimes people have a tendency to go by the score of last year's game, when really you can't. N.C. State became a much, much better team as the season progressed."
O'Brien: "It's a great opportunity for us to play first game of the year on national TV. That's why you schedule a game like this. It certaintly has energized the Wolfpack nation. … It'll be a good test for us."
Players to watch In addition to the above mentioned players under center look for N.C. State linebacker Ray Michel, who led last year's squad in tackles, to step up with star LB Nate Irving out. USC's offensive line could also be key. They gave up five sacks against the Wolfpack last year and need to keep their QB upright to have a chance.
Vegas line N.C. State (-3.5)
Score prediction For all the anticipation and tailgating, South Carolina won't be intimidated by N.C. State's frenzied crowd. The guys play in the SEC, where 60,000-seat-plus venues are the norm. No, it'll be the 11 guys on the field who win this game, not the 12th man. USC comes with a good pedigree, Spurrier and the feared SEC, but only one team has Russell Wilson. N.C. State wins this one 27-17.