Series Record: North Carolina leads, 38-18-4
Last Five Games: South Carolina leads, 4-1
Getting to Know South Carolina
The Gamecocks enter the 2015 season with relatively low expectations for a program that thrived during the previous five years. South Carolina was shut out of the Associated Press Preseason Top 25 for the first time since 2010.
South Carolina looks to recover from a dismal 7-6 season, including a 3-5 record in the SEC. The Gamecocks ranked 33rd nationally in total offense in 2014, racking up 443 yards per game, but dropped to 92nd in total defense, giving up 432 yards per game. That kind of offense-to-defense differential should sound familiar to North Carolina fans.
South Carolina returns just 12 starters in 2015, four on offense and eight on defense.
The most notable difference between the 2014 and 2015 Gamecocks comes at the quarterback position, where sophomore Connor Mitch will replace Dylan Thompson. Thompson accounted for 31 of South Carolina’s 53 touchdowns last season, and there is still uncertainty regarding his replacement(s).
Mitch entered the offseason on top of the depth chart despite only throwing just six passes thus far in a Gamecock uniform, but was tested by fellow second-year signal caller Michael Scarnecchia and junior Perry Orth. Head coach Steve Spurrier officially announced on Tuesday that Mitch will start against the Tar Heels.
Senior Brandon Wilds and sophomore David Williams will carry the South Carolina running game. Wilds backed up Mike Davis last season, rushing for 570 yards and four touchdowns as a power runner. This season will be his first chance to be “the man” at South Carolina since he filled in for Marcus Lattimore after his horrifying knee injury in 2011. Wilds’ career at South Carolina has been hindered by nagging injuries. The second back, Williams, will be more of a speed option for the Gamecocks. He rushed for 256 yards and two touchdowns in 2014.
The Gamecocks will have a young receiving corps headed by All-SEC threat Pharoh Cooper. He’ll be flanked by redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel and redshirt sophomore Carlton Heard.
Defensively, the Gamecocks struggled last year, and will be missing graduated senior J.T. Surratt. Surratt totaled 30 tackles as a defensive tackle in 2014, including 4.5 for a loss.
The Gamecocks will be implementing co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke’s system in 2015 after he joined the staff in February. Hoke comes to South Carolina after 13 seasons working as a defensive backs coach in the NFL. He previously worked under Spurrier at Florida in 1999-2001. Hoke will be sharing duties with Lorenzo Ward, who held the sole defensive coordinator role for six seasons.
The biggest deficiency in South Carolina’s defense last year was its inability to get pressure up front. The Gamecocks managed just 14 sacks in the 2014, ranking 118th in the country in that category, and allowed 212 rushing yards per game (107th). Junior college transfers Marquavius Lewis, Ulric Jones and Dante Sawyer look to bring additional help to a defensive line that struggled last season.
The South Carolina secondary benefitted from those rushing woes, ranking 52nd in the nation in passing yards allowed. The unit will be led by T.J. Gurley, who will be staring as a strong side safety. Gurley finished 2014 with 80 tackles, 4 pass break-ups, and an interception.
“Any time you get a chance to run, run. I know how North Carolina is. You’ve got to be in good shape. It’s going to be hot. You’ve just got to be prepared for it.” – South Carolina senior defensive tackle Gerald Dixon, Jr. on North Carolina’s up-tempo offense
“We are going to get behind him. This is not, ‘You’re starting and he’s going in the second quarter.’ There’s none of that. He’s got a chance to be the quarterback. Hopefully, he’ll go the distance against the Tar Heels and be ready for the next game.” – Spurrier on naming Mitch his starting quarterback
Matchup To Watch
WR Pharoh Cooper vs. North Carolina Secondary
Technically, this isn’t as much of a single matchup as it is a proven dynamic playmaker facing a secondary unit that has plenty to prove in 2015. Cooper caught 69 passes for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014, averaging more than 16 yards per catch. Pharoh’s impressive season landed him a spot on the SEC All-Conference team.
On the opposite side of the equation, the North Carolina secondary gave up more than 14 yards per catch in 2014, and ranked 101st in the nation in passing defense. The difference this year, however, is the coaching staff directing this group. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has created a positive atmosphere for this unit, and defensive backs coach Charlton Warren has provided clear roles for each member of the secondary.
Cooper will be an appropriate test for a secondary that has made large strides this offseason. It’s just one game and one receiver, but how the Tar Heels defend him should tell a lot about what this defense can do in 2015.