Game time: 3 p.m. ET/2 p.m. CT
How to watch online: WatchESPN
Odds: North Carolina State -5 | Over/under 52.5 (via oddsshark.com)
All-time series: South Carolina leads, 27-26-4
Last meeting: 2009, South Carolina won 7-3
Given the expectations, South Carolina’s 2016 season has to be considered a success. Widely picked to be the SEC’s worst team, South Carolina instead went 6-7. They ended the season with a 46-39 loss to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl in Will Muschamp’s first season.
That said, in spite of the record, there were signs that the Gamecocks weren’t actually that good. South Carolina went 4-2 in games decided by a single score; on the year, they were outscored by an average of 5.7 points per game. Even throwing out an ugly, 56-7 loss to Clemson, the Gamecocks were outscored by 35 points on the season. You could argue that this was more like a 4-8 team that got a bit lucky.
On the other hand, basically everybody is back. The Gamecocks return 81% of their production (per SB Nation’s Bill Connelly) from last season, including an eye-popping 91% on the offensive side of the ball. Leading rusher Rico Dowdle was a true freshman; starting quarterback Jake Bentley was more or less a high school senior.
The Gamecocks will open the 2017 season against an old rival. NC State went 7-6 in 2016, but S&P+ projections like the Wolfpack; they’re ranked 26th in the preseason rankings.
Here are three things to watch for.
Will the real Jake Bentley please stand up?
The offseason hype train got rolling for Jake Bentley based on, essentially, three good games to open his college career. In his first three career starts, Bentley went 54-for-74 (73 percent) for 622 yards, with six touchdowns and no interceptions.
The issue is that those three starts came against UMass, Tennessee, and Missouri -- three teams that (at least in Tennessee’s case, at the end of the season) couldn’t stop anybody. His numbers were a bit more pedestrian against Florida, Clemson, and South Florida: while he managed to complete 61.3 percent of his passes, he threw three touchdowns and four interceptions while his yards per attempt dropped to 6.9.
Bentley did just fine when he was facing bad defenses, but against good defenses, he looked like... well, a true freshman.
We’ll find out early on how much Bentley has advanced in the offseason. NC State’s defensive line is very strong, with four returning defensive linemen who combined for 25.5 sacks in 2016. Speaking of which...
How will South Carolina’s offensive line hold up?
The good news: South Carolina returns seven offensive linemen who started at least one game last season, and all seven of them are juniors and seniors. The bad news: the Gamecocks ranked 111th in Adjusted Line Yards and 116th in Adjusted Sack Rate. This is a pretty experienced line, though it was also a porous one last year.
Rico Dowdle is a talented young running back, but for him to have any success against a stout NC State defensive front, the line is going to have to put in work. If Dowdle isn’t finding any daylight, South Carolina is going to have a tough time scoring. Of course...
This is probably going to be a grinder
Even if the Gamecocks aren’t scoring, NC State might not be scoring much, either. The Wolfpack averaged 27.0 ppg in 2016, but even that’s inflated by a few big games against bad teams; NC State averaged 22.4 ppg against Power 5 competition last year.
What’s more, NC State lost 1000-yard rusher Matt Dayes to graduation, so the Wolfpack are going to have their own offensive issues to sort through. The over/under on this game is 52.5 and even that seems high — this feels like the kind of game in which the first to 20 wins.
I don’t feel confident that South Carolina has enough offensive firepower to win a shootout, but winning a 17-14 grinder is not out of the question.