The season-opening game for South Carolina this year is far different than it was last year. When the 2014 college football season began, the Gamecocks were a trend pick to crash the sport's inaugural playoff or land just outside of it; some were even wondering whether Steve Spurrier might be able to lead a second SEC team to a national title. The SEC East was South Carolina's for the taking, and a victory in the Georgia Dome would deliver the conference crown that Spurrier had worked toward for almost a decade.
We all know what happened next. South Carolina was annihilated, 52-28, by a far lower-ranked Texas A&M team in Columbia. Soon, it was the Aggies who were seen as possible SEC contenders, and South Carolina looked like a team that had been completely exposed. Only one of those things -- the latter -- turned out to be true, though there was no way to tell quite how mediocre the Gamecocks would be or how mediocre Texas A&M would also be.
Which is where we get to the principle that cannot be stressed enough in Week 1: Unlike professional sports, college football has no preseason. And with a rapid-fire regular season that lasts just three months, snap judgments brought on by first-week performances can be relatively slow to dissipate. Take away as little as possible from this weekend, win or lose.
1This Could Get Ugly. One of my earliest memories of Gamecock football was in 1999, when I was a sophomore in Columbia. Lou Holtz had just come to South Carolina, and he coaches his first game at N.C. State. The game was literally played in the middle of a tropical storm, leading the N.C. State athletics department to dub it "Carter-Finley Stadium's Wettest Game." The teams were a combined 8-of-25 passing for 97 yards, and South Carolina lost, 10-0, despite outgaining N.C. State by the princely margin of 232-96. There has never been a pretty game between South Carolina and a North Carolina-based team since. In 2008, South Carolina again beat the Wolfpack, 34-0, in a game that was not nearly that much of a blowout and featured a combined six interceptions and N.C. State passers going 5-of-20. The Gamecocks won again the next year, 7-3. In 2013, the Gamecocks played UNC in a lightning-delayed game that was far from impressive and launched 1,000 narratives about Jadeveon Clowney's conditioning. Don't expect a thing of beauty here.
2The First Game. For as bad as last year's opener was for South Carolina, Steve Spurrier is actually something of a maestro when it comes to debuts. He is 23-2 all-time in the first game, with his only other loss coming against South Carolina when he coached at Duke. One of his season-opening wins in Columbia was a 41-13 thrashing of Southern Miss, then coached by Larry Fedora, to begin the 2010 season. That would be the year that the Gamecocks went on to play in the SEC Championship Game for the first and so far only time in program history.
3The Series History. Returning to the actual South Carolina-North Carolina showdowns: The Tar Heels have historically dominated the interstate rivalry, though it's only been sporadically played in recent years. UNC is 34-18-4 all-time against South Carolina, though its last win in the series came in 1991. The Gamecocks have won five of the last six games, dating back to 1988. Spurrier has tried to strike up a Florida-Georgia type of showdown between the two -- in part for recruiting purposes -- with limited success. The schools did agree this week to play each other two more times in the future, though both games will most likely take place after Spurrier's retirement.
4New-Look Defense? The one thing that South Carolina fans will be watching most closely this week is how their defense does with Jon Hoke taking over as co-defensive coordinator. Hoke is supposedly handling the passing game while last year's defensive coordinator, Lorenzo Ward, takes care of defending the run. But Spurrier has said that Hoke will call the plays, so it appears to mostly be a face-saving way to demote Ward after last year's defensive implosion by the Gamecocks. This game could be the first indication of whether Hoke can turn around the defense quickly or whether it will take awhile (if it ever happens at all).
Jeremy Brevard -- USA Today Sports
5An Experienced Opponent. North Carolina returns 14 players who started at least 10 games in 2014, including five offensive lineman -- though one will move to a back-up role -- their starting quarterback, a starting wide receiver and a mix of players on defense. Last year's team went 6-7, but that was actually a nice recovery from the 2-4 start that featured a four-game losing streak. UNC did club Duke, 45-20, in that annual rivalry showdown late in the season. But the Tar Heels also lost pretty soundly to both N.C. State and Rutgers.
THREE TO WATCH
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina: It's pretty hard to find something original to say about Cooper, who's been the focus of most of the previews written about the Gamecocks this offseason -- for good reason. Cooper had 69 catches for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014. He rushed for 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 27 carries. He returned punts, though he only averaged five yards a return, and he went 5-of-8 passing for 78 yards and two touchdowns. Cooper might not play quite as much wildcat quarterback this year as last, but he's still going to be looked to as the leader of the offense and it's biggest playmaker.
Connor Mitch, QB, South Carolina: You know how you don't want to be the guy after the guy, but the guy after the guy after the guy? That is the position Mitch is in. In retrospect, it's pretty easy to see that Dylan Thompson was going to take his fair share of lumps for not being Connor Shaw. Shaw had an otherwordly 24-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his senior season, and there was probably no way Shaw could replicate that performance, much less Thompson. But that name -- that's what could get Mitch into trouble. The comparisons are almost impossible to avoid. One Mitch will want to avoid: The last South Carolina quarterback named Connor to start his first game in North Carolina didn't do so well.
Rick Osentoski -- USA Today Sports
Marquise Williams, QB, North Carolina: If the Gamecocks defense was looking for a test, it's got one in a dynamic dual-threat quarterback. Williams was 270-of-428 passing for 3,068 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2014. On the ground, he churned out 788 yards and 13 more touchdowns on 193 carries. If South Carolina wants to win this game, it will have to find some way to slow Williams down, and slowing down great players was not exactly the Gamecocks' strongest suit in 2014.
But something tells me that Steve Spurrier will have his team ready to play. I hate to base a pick on something like that, and I will fully admit that my homerism might be clouding my judgment in this case, but college football starts off with a renewed sense of hope for every team. It won't be pretty and it won't be easy, but the Gamecocks edge the Tar Heels. South Carolina 24, North Carolina 21