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By Sharon Thorsland

After the shooting tragedy in Chapel Hill earlier this week, it’s tough to switch gears and focus on football. That’s what the Tar Heels are trying to do though, as #21North Carolina takes on border rival South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Kick-off Classic at Bank of America stadium. Kick-off is set for 7:44 Saturday night. It’s the season opener for both teams, who last faced off in the 2021 Duke’s Mayo Bowl, a 38-21Gamecocks win. The Gamecocks are looking to improve on an 8-5 finish last year after ending the regular season with impressive wins over Tennessee and Clemson. The Tar Heels went the opposite direction, dropping their last four games after starting the season 9-1.

This could be a high scoring affair, as both teams feature excellent quarterbacks. Spencer Rattler threw for over 3000 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, while UNC’s Drake Maye is an early Heisman favorite and widely regarded as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. The redshirt sophomore threw for over 4300 yards and a whopping 38 touchdowns. Maye’s top target from last season Josh Downs is now in the NFL, but the Heels are holding out hope that transfer Devontez Walker will be ruled eligible by the NCAA. Rattler has top receiver Antwane “Juice” Wells back, the sophomore had 68 catches for 928 yards last season, so Gamecocks fans are expecting a dynamic passing game under new coordinator Dowell Loggains.

The Gamecocks running attack is more of a question mark. They’ve got a new starter at running back, with sixth year senior Dakereon Joyner takes taking over after previously spending time at receiver and quarterback. Whoever is on the field they’ll face a new-look UNC defense that was overhauled after ranking last in the ACC in total yards and points allowed last season. Star linebacker Cedric Gray is back though, along with Power Echols, both had over 100 tackles last season.

The Gamecocks defense only returns four starters, including sacks leader Tonka Hemingway and safety Nick Emmanwori, who led the team in tackles last season. Emmanwori anchors a solid secondary that ranked 13th in the nation last season in takeaways. The bad news is, the Gamecocks were awful against the run, allowing 198 yards per game on the ground. They’ll face a UNC attack that is loaded with talent, including Omarioh Hampton and British Brooks, who missed all of last season with an injury. Plus Maye is a threat to run, he led the Heels in rushing last season with 698 yards and seven touchdowns. If UNC can get the run game going early, it could be a long day for the the Gamecocks.

North Carolina and South Carolina first played 120 years ago and have met 59 times overall. The Tar Heels lead the series 35-20-4, but the Gamecocks have won four of the last five. This is a statement game for both teams, with regional bragging rights to go along with what would be a Power-5 win. The Gamecocks are no doubt formidable foes, but with Maye leading the way, I say UNC gets back in the win column this time. Go Tar Heels!