Why to watch: Steve Spurrier vs. Tom O'Brien on opening night? It's not the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta, but you could do a lot worse for a mid-week offering. After straddling the .500 mark throughout 2008, both programs are hoping to use this game as a launching pad for an eight or nine-win season.
In four years, South Carolina hasn't broken through as expected under Spurrier, averaging just seven wins and failing to seriously join the SEC title race. A new season brings new hope and an equal number of question marks for a team at a crossroads.
North Carolina State enters 2009 with considerable optimism after finishing last year with four straight regular season wins. With two seasons in Raleigh now behind him and QB Russell Wilson fresh off an All-ACC debut, O'Brien believes he has the Pack on the brink of a breakthrough year.
Why South Carolina might win: The one thing the Gamecocks have consistently been able to do in the Spurrier era is play defense. Even with some losses and a very young secondary, they'll be a swarming bunch that's led by All-SEC LB Eric Norwood. Coordinator Ellis Johnson has a month to prepare for a flimsy Wolfpack offensive line, which is bad news for the home team. He'll throw everything he's got at the unit, forcing Wilson out of his comfort zone.
Now that Stephen Garcia is being given a chance to pilot the offense, he'll like what he sees on the other side of the field. NC State struggles mightily in pass defense, which will open things up for WR Moe Brown and TE Weslye Saunders.
Why NC State might win: Wilson. He's the reason the Wolfpack will have a shot in every game this season. Mature beyond his years and able to make plays with his arm and his legs, he has a knack for making everyone around him better and energizing the crowd.
Now, the Gamecock D is perennially feisty, but that secondary is going to be a work-in-progress. With three new starters and freshmen playing an uncomfortably large role, WR Owen Spencer and TE George Bryan could both have big nights on the receiving ends of Wilson's throws.
Who to watch: The South Carolina offensive line. Rarely a group that overachieves, this unit needs to give Garcia time and open up some running room for the untested Gamecock backs.
That won't come without a challenge. North Carolina State sports a terrific tandem up front that'll bring heat from Willie Young and Alan-Michael Cash on the outside and inside, respectively. If forced from the pocket, Garcia will make costly errors.
What will happen: While Spurrier isn't at the level he used to be in Gainesville, you still don't want to give him or his staff too much time to prepare for an opponent. He's unbeaten in openers with the Gamecocks, including last year's 34-0 shellacking of the Pack.
Sure, State has improved greatly since then, but the middling SEC team always rates an edge over the middling ACC team. The defense, specifically Norwood, will be the key for South Carolina, dominating that Wolfpack O-line and winning the turnover battle.
While style points will come at a premium, the ‘Cocks will do just enough offensively to get out of Carter-Finley with a win.
CFN Prediction: South Carolina 17 ... NC State 13 ... Line: South Carolina -3.5
Must See Rating: (Mad Men 5 ... NYC Prep 1) ... 3.5