The Non-Conference Games That Will Shape The 2009 College Football Season: #1 South Carolina @ North Carolina State

As regular readers know, TomahawkNation.com is obsessed with scheduling.  We find it fascinating how teams can run materially different races and yet one can be crowned the winner over another at the end of the season.  Often, evaluators turn to conference affiliations when judging a team, and that's why non-conference games are so important.  With less than 100 days left until the start of college football season, Tomahawk Nation decided to take a look at the non-conference games that will shape the college football landscape in 2009. 

As a general rule, the non-conference games that matter most to a conference's reputation are those in the first two weeks before the conference seasons begin, and those played during bowl season.  The reason is simple: there aren't any conference battles going on and the games easily draw the attention of the media.

Last year the ACC took a big early hit after Alabama thumped Clemson, East Carolina upset Virginia Tech, and Maryland lost to Middle Tennessee State.  It was such a bad opening weekend that much of the rest of the country stopped following ACC football, but the ACC was easily the best conference when they played the teams from the big 6 conferences.  Examine:

% of Games played against BCS Conference Competition Combined Record of Each League's BCS conference competition Winning % against BCS competition
ACC 48% .652 .598
Big East 39% .563 .573
Big XII 31% .467 .495
Big 10 29% .462 .538
Pac 10 45% .429 .607
SEC 31% .400 .578

The ACC played the most games against the other BCS conferences, and their opponents had the best winning percentages (meaning they played the good teams from the big conferences), yet the ACC had the 2nd best winning percentage against those squads.

Just as you wouldn't judge a conference on one bad weekend in november, it's equally stupid to render a final verdict as to a conference's strength based off the opening week.

Last August 28th, in yet another early season loss, South Carolina scored a huge blow for the SEC against the ACC, on national television.  After a first half that saw 5 punts, two fumbles, three interceptions, and one missed field goal, South Carolina led 3-0 in Williams-Bryce Stadium (South Carolina).  This was one of the ugliest football games I have ever seen.    NCST Quarterback Russell Willson got knocked out cold


After that, it was all South Carolina, as the Gamecocks went up 13-0 to start the final quarter and Spurrier ran the score up to appease the alumni.  Final:  38-0, Gamecocks.

But that might be different this year...

For the casual observer, NC State was one of the toughest teams to figure out last year.  They started out the year 2-6, before winning their last 4 games to get bowl eligible.  For those who followed the program closely, however, there was a pretty logical explanation for this turnaround:  injuries.  NC State lost an incredible 43 starts to injury last year (only 5 teams lost more).  That lack of a consistent starting lineup hurt the Wolfpack early, particularly with Russell Wilson suffering from post concussion syndrome.  They also suffered major injuries on the defensive side of the ball, losing star Linebacker Nate Irving.

The coaches sat Wilson for the South Florida contest to make sure he was over his concussion.  Once Wilson came back, it was a whole new ballgame.  NCST's offense exploded:

Opponent NCST Yards Per pLay
BC 4.6
FSU 7.2
@ Maryland 4.8
@ Duke 6.4
Wake Forest 4.2
@ UNC 6.4
Miami (Fl) 6.5

Almost a 20% improvement over what they had been averaging before Wilson's comeback.

In fact, WIlson is on a streak of 249 passes without an interception, the longest such streak in the country.

With 15 returning starters, and a less than devastating level of injuries, the Wolfpack figure to be much better on offense and defense (where they were particularly hit hard by the injury bug).  Their defensive line features 4 senior starters, including NFL prospects Willie Young Jr. and Alan-Michael Cash.  In fact, NCST will have one of the most veteran lineups in the country on both sides of the ball, as they start 12 seniors, 5 juniors, 5 sophomores, and no freshmen. 

 

South Carolina on the other hand faces far more uncertainty.  Last year they had one of the best defenses in the country (15th by advanced metrics), and a terrible offense (75th by same). 

On offense, the Gamecocks featured an average passing game behind QB's Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia, throwing to senior Kenny McKinley and junior Jared Cook.  The Cock's problem was in the run game, where only Auburn and Mississippi State were worse. 

This year they lost RB Mike Davis, WR McKinley, TE Jared Cook, and both offensive tackles.  That said, South Carolina's offense could be better with improved interior line play, provided that they don't have to slide one of their guards to tackle.  Garcia takes over at QB and most feel that he is the most talented quarterback the Gamecocks have had in some time.  If he can avoid off-field issues and not upset Steve Spurrier, he will have every opportunity to succeed at QB, seeing as the Gamecocks lost almost every major skill position player.

On the defensive side, the gamecocks were superb, as they had the league's 4th best overall defense (scroll down), 4th against the pass and 7th against the rush.  As in the NC State game, the Gamecock defense repeatedly stopped their opponents, forcing turnovers and punts.  The unit was visibly frustrated at times (see Florida) and sometimes lost their composure when the offense self destructed.  They were hit hard by graduation, and rank 102nd in percentage of tackles returning.  The Gamecocks lose 5 seniors in total, including NFL draft picks LB Jasper Brinkley and CB Captain Munnerlyn. 

Their secondary will feature three underclassmen starters and Brinkley could be very difficult to replace, as there aren't many athletic 270lb linebackers available.

 

Last year the Gamecocks were favored by 10 and covered by a healthy margin in the end.  This year, look for the Wolfpack to be the favorites by 3-7 points.  Interesting Note:  Carolina could be an underdog in as many as 8 of their 12 regular season games!  That is a brutal schedule on par with those of Florida State, Miami, and Oklahoma. 

If Carolina can find a running game and limit their turnovers, they can win this game.  If no solution can be found for the ground attack, however, this one could get ugly quickly as the Wolfpack's defensive personnel are heavily skewed to playing the pass.

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