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Preview: UNC football prepares to face South Carolina in season opener

Then-sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs (11) carries the ball at the Duke's Mayo Bowl against South Carolina at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Dec. 30, 2021.

The UNC football team is preparing to open the season against South Carolina on Saturday at Duke’s Mayo Classic in Charlotte. 

In their last matchup of 2021, the Tar Heels lost to South Carolina, 38-21. The upcoming game will set the tone for the team's 2023 season and is an opportunity for North Carolina to display its new offensive and defensive range off the bat. 

Here are three big themes to watch for entering the first game of the season:

Adding a dominant defense 

The Tar Heels held a 9-1 record before dropping the last four games of the season. Even as offensive production waned toward the end of the year, North Carolina continued to manage high scores against most opponents. Assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik expressed the importance of consistency and increased physicality within the defensive line, which was criticized for weak performances last year.  

“I sense a sense of urgency," Chizik said. "We don’t talk a lot about last year. Obviously, this is a new year, new day. Our job and our focus every day is to get better. Our guys have really set out to do that.” 

With last year’s woes behind them, North Carolina is hoping to eliminate hesitation within the defense and improve overall communication to effectively counter South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler. Coming off a successful season that saw Rattler throw over 3,000 yards and record wins against Clemson and Tennessee, the Tar Heels will need to work to limit one of the best throwers in the country. 

Creating a running game

Chip Lindsey joined UNC’s football program over the offseason as the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

“We want to be physical, fast, tough," Lindsey said. "That’s mental and physical. We have really tried to push that and get that mindset.” 

To be tough at every position, Lindsey has worked during the offseason to develop a run game with increased depth. Last season, UNC struggled to create yards after contact and achieved less than 100 forced missed tackles. Notably, redshirt sophomore quarterback Drake Maye led the entire team in rushing yards last year.

While facing South Carolina, a successful running game is critical to relieve pressure off  Maye and the wide receivers. With the return of graduate running back British Brooks and junior running back Caleb Hood after season-ending injuries in 2022, along with junior and sophomore running backs Elijah Green and Omarian Hampton, UNC has the much-needed running back depth that it lacked last season. 

South Carolina will also be testing new offensive strategies after naming Dowell Loggains as the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. With two new offensive coordinators on the field, the Duke’s Mayo Classic will prove to be a test for both the Gamecocks and Tar Heels to develop their offensive identities. 

Quarterback matchups

On top of the game pitting the two Carolinas against each other, both Maye and USC quarterback Spencer Rattler will also be in a rivalry of their own. Recently, Maye was ranked as the fifth-best college football player in 2023 after a dominant first season. With a successful season behind him, Maye is confident coming back for his second year as a Tar Heel. 

“A second year of me, I think that’s a big deal," Maye said. "I’ve seen a lot of stuff. I’ve seen a lot of what defense has [brought] at me. With a year under my belt, I’ll hopefully be a better player and have new experiences.”

Although Rattler was not as consistent last season, South Carolina was able to pull out significant wins against No. 5 Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson with his help. Rattler showed his ability to take control of high-pressure games after throwing for 438 yards and six touchdowns against Tennessee. If Rattler is at his best, UNC will look to a strong performance from Maye, a solid running game and an effective defensive showing to pull out a win.

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