It seems ludicrous to call the first game for any team in any season -- let alone the very first game of this FBS football season -- one of the most critical games for a program in nearly a decade, but an argument can be made that tonight's showdown with N.C. State is that important for South Carolina. The Gamecocks come in with Stephen Garcia, their most credible candidate to finally be the quarterback that makes Steve Spurrier's offense work and makes South Carolina at least a factor in who gets to play in Atlanta. Assuming, of course, he remains out of trouble until kickoff.
But this is also one of the most elusive teams to get a hold on since the Head Ball Coach took the helm in Columbia. There are pieces of a solid defensive unit, but at least three linemen on the two-deep won't take the field tonight. The Gamecocks are counting more on talent than experience in the linebacking corps and the secondary.Whatever the subplots about the future of the Spurrier Era at South Carolina -- if there's much of a future to be talked about -- there is also the more pressing fact that the Gamecocks need to win here to have any sort of certainy of emerging from September at .500. Before the month is through, they will also face Georgia in Athens and Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss at home. Lose three of those games, and a bowl bid begins to look more like a dream than a goal, with games at Alabama, at Tennesseee, at Arkansas, vs. Florida and vs. Clemson still to be played.
That said, it's not an unimportant game for N.C. State. It is Year 3 for Tom O'Brien, who is so far 11-14 in Raleigh and leads a team that has received plenty of preseason buzz as a possible dark horse in the always unpredictable ACC. The Atlantic Division isn't easy -- it's home to onetime ACC king Florida State, defending two-time division champ Boston College, question mark Clemson, scrappy Wake Forest and always befuddling Maryland -- but if the Wolfpack are going to make their move, now is the time.
Russell Wilson, knocked out early in this game last year, is their best hope to make that happen. Starting 11 games last year, Wilson was a pedestrian 150-of-275 but had a jaw-dropping 17:1 TD-to-INT ratio. If the offensive line, which returns three starters, can keep Wilson standing and help the running game continue its last-season improvement despite losing its leading producer, then the offense will be there.
On defense, the loss of LB Nate Irving hurts, but not so much that the Wolfpack can't recover from it. You could be forgiven if you don't remember that the defense actually had a decent game against the Gamecocks in last year's 34-0 blowout; South Carolina gained 369 yards -- 50 of those on a single run -- and the Carolina quarterbacks were sacked five times and threw four picks. Only an equally bad performance by N.C. State backup QB Daniel Evans, who completed just four passes and threw two interceptions of his own, helped the Gamecocks turn a 3-0 lead at halftime into a 13-0 edge in the third quarter and then the appearance of an annihilation in the final margin.
I could look at this game for hours and come up with a new winner every minute. The teams are just too close, and each of them have very real questions. So I'll stick with the result I had in the preseason.
South Carolina 23, N.C. State 21