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August 3, 2013

Carolina Countdown: Non-Conference

As training camp gets going and the Tar Heels start practice the Carolina Countdown continues, as we take a closer look at who the Tar Heels will be facing out of conference this fall.

Three of the four non-conference opponents averaged over 31.5 points per game in 2012, and the other one averaged just less than 27 points per game (Middle Tennessee State), so it appears the Tar Heels will be up against some offensive minded schools before heading into conference play.

Take a look at who the Tar Heels will be up against, starting with one of the headlining games to start off the college football season Thursday night in Columbia's Williams-Brice Stadium.


SOUTH CAROLINA


South Carolina is ranked No. 7 preseason coming into the season, led of course by Jadeveon Clowney.

The Gamecocks were able to capitalize on defense in 2012, as the team had 43 sacks and 94 tackles for loss, last year. This year they'll be looking to equal or better those numbers behind Clowney and multiple other veterans in the defensive front four.

Naturally a huge question heading into the season opener is whether Bryn Renner will be able to step back and deliver the ball to his receivers, or if he'll be consistently getting pressured and hit by the Gamecocks.

Connor Shaw should be the starting quarterback for South Carolina after he played in 11 games last year and completed over 67.5 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns.

But Steve Spurrier has more and more been focusing his offense on the run in recent seasons, as he ran it almost 500 times last year.

However, the big question for the Gamecocks will be the replacement of Marcus Lattimore and the rushing game, as sophomore Mike Davis will be looked upon to deliver on the ground.

Larry Fedora will have to look at controlling the ball, as the Gamecocks defense only allowed opponents to convert 37 percent on third down last season. On certain passing downs such as third-and-long, the Tar Heels will have to get creative and keep the Gamecocks off-balance.

The Tar Heels will have to be able to put points on the board, scoring touchdowns and not settling for a bunch of field goals, in what will surely be a hostile environment for the opening game of the season.


EAST CAROLINA


UNC"s only in-state out-of-conference matchup this fall is a renewal of the rivalry against East Carolina in Kenan Stadium. ECU will be looking to get revenge from a 27-6 loss a year ago, and looks for just its second-ever victory over the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill (Pat Dye led the Pirates past Bill Dooley's Tar Heels in 1975).

For the second season in a row, Renner torched the Pirates in the 2012 matchup, throwing for 321 yards and two touchdowns. However, the game was still close in the second half before UNC broke away from a 10-6 halftime lead.

ECU signal caller Shane Carden will have another year under his belt and slowly started to learn Ruffin McNeill's wide-open offensive system through conference play. In fact, North Carolina was the only team to hold Carden without a touchdown pass through a whole game last year.

The Pirates will have their top receiver coming back in Justin Hardy, who is a major threat in the ECU offense, producing over 1000 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The Pirates will be also depending on Jabril Solomon, who averaged 24.12 yards per catch last year as a freshman, as well as Justin Jones and a one-time UNC recruit, Danny Webster of Havelock.

The run game should be stable for the Pirates also, giving them a potential two-dimensional attack.

2012 leading rusher Vintavious Cooper returns in the backfield, along with Michael Dobson.

In last year's meeting in Chapel Hill Cooper had 68 rushing yards on 11 carries and as a team; the Pirates had 109 rushing yards against the Tar Heels despite -40 rushing yards out of quarterback Carden.

On the defensive side, the Pirates gave up 31.6 points per game last year and ranked 108th nationally in passing defense, so clearly if they want to keep it competitive with the Tar Heels and their fast-paced approach they're going to have to improve considerably.

Surprisingly, East Carolina held Giovani Bernard to only 50 yards last year on 18 rushing attempts, but that of course was just after he returned from an injury. But they had no success at all defending Renner and his bevy of UNC wideouts, who had a field day getting open against the Pirate secondary.


MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE


MTSU is another team that the Tar Heels could be able to demonstrate offensive dominance against, as the Blue Raiders really struggled on that side of the ball last year.

The Blue Raiders gave up 252.6 yards per game through the air last year on defense, which at least in theory provides Renner a great opportunity to display his ability all his offensive weapons.

And certainly guys like Quinshad Davis and Eric Ebron could be in line for big outings against this particular opponent.

The one saving grace for MTSU a year ago was that they produced a +10 turnover margin throughout the year, with 12 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries. So the Tar Heels don't exactly want to get careless offensively against this ballclub or they could make them pay, as they did in last fall's stunning victory over Georgia Tech.

After struggling to defend the run in their first season in Chapel Hill, certainly the pressure is on Vic Koenning and the rest of the defensive coaches to improve in this key area.

MTSU certainly likes to run the ball and was able to average almost 176 yards per game on the ground last year. Jordan Parker will be leaned on heavily, as he was the leading rusher last year for the Raiders.

Logan Kilgore will be in his third year at quarterback, a position where he has cut down the turnovers each year as a starter.

Kilgore has been averaging slightly over 200 yards per game in his two years starting, while averaging 17 touchdowns a season.

But, Kilgore will be missing his leading receiver from last year due to graduation, as Anthony Amos accounted for almost 56 percent of MTSU's receiving touchdowns. The Raiders will depend on junior Kyle Griswould, among others to step up to the plate this year.

Remember, the Blue Raiders were able to surprise an ACC foe in Georgia Tech last year, winning convincingly 49-28 against the Yellow Jackets, a team that the Tar Heels have struggled with over the years, so clearly this is not a team that one can be overconfident for.

But if the Tar Heels play reasonably well on both sides of the ball, UNC should expect to pick up this win, avoiding the first season-opening loss in Kenan Stadium since 2006.


OLD DOMINION


Old Dominion might not be an intimidating name on the UNC schedule, but they're an improving program and could provide a challenge to the Tar Heels when they visit Chapel Hill.

Even though the ODU defense gave up almost 30.5 points per game last fall, it was probably because their offense was flawless throughout the year, putting up numbers and stats in all areas of the game. Not unlike UNC, in fact, in the way they moved up and down the field quickly and scored in relatively little time on many of their offensive possessions.

Last season, ODU quarterback Taylor Heinicke racked up superior numbers, throwing for 5,076 yards and 44 touchdowns (averaging 390.5 yards per game), leading the Monarchs to an 11-2 record last year.

Heinicke will also be returning three wide receivers in Antonio Vaughan, Blair Roberts, and Larry Pinkard, each who had over 700 yards receiving and seven touchdowns last year.

Tyree Lee will lead a backfield that had four to five running backs taking hand offs last year. Even though Lee led the team with 864 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, Heinicke wasn't too far behind with 671 yards rushing and led the team with 11 rushing touchdowns.

Old Dominion produced over 154 yards per game on the ground last year, but their opponents racked up over 197 yards per game rushing.

It's an area where North Carolina has to figure that A.J. Blue and Romar Morris have a shot of running wild.

But that particular game isn't until later in the season, where there could be improvements for each team on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the Monarchs had 38 sacks last year, while creating 15 interceptions.

The three early non-conference games should give the Tar Heels an understanding of where they will be out of training camp, and where they need to improve heading into the brunt of its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule.






 

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