South Carolina is expected to win an SEC title this season, and it might have the best player in the nation. North Carolina isn't nearly as visible nationally at this point, but the Tar Heels have a reasonable shot at reaching the ACC championship game given the wide open nature of the Coastal Division.
Before UNC gets to worrying about its Coastal fate, though, it'll have to survive a rowdy crowd in Columbia and avoid having its entire offense destroyed or otherwise maimed by Jadeveon Clowney, who might end up being a serious Heisman Trophy contender. The weight of expectation here is all on Clowney and the Gamecocks; whether or not that makes any difference come kickoff remains to be seen.
The Tar Heels may not be on the Florida State-Clemson tier in the ACC, but they're good enough to at least put a scare into South Carolina. The odds of said scare are directly tied to how well UNC can protect its quarterback. If Clowney and his defensive line pals are hosting a party in the backfield all night, this game could take a turn for the ugly.
Rankings and records: South Carolina enters the season ranked in the top 10 of the Coaches' and AP polls. North Carolina begins the year unranked, though the Heels did receive votes in both polls. Neither was picked by media members to win their respective divisions, but both received some first-place votes. UNC is 34-17-4 all-time against South Carolina.
Steve Spurrier has never lost to UNC as a head coach, dating back to his time at Duke.
Vegas: South Carolina is a 13-point favorite. The over/under is set at 57.5 points.
Weather: The high in Columbia Thursday is expected to be about 92 degrees, and there may be some scattered thunderstorms.
Three names to know
Jadeveon Clowney -- How does North Carolina approach the elite defensive end? Can the Tar Heels figure out a way to keep him out of their backfield? UNC's offense is talented enough at the skill positions to do some damage, but if Clowney's out there blowing up the game plan, it's not going to be pretty. North Carolina could end up starting two freshmen up front, including one at right tackle. On the bright side, the man protecting Bryn Renner's blind side, James Hurst, was an All-ACC selection last year.
Bryn Renner -- Renner is going to need help, of course, but he'll probably be the biggest factor in UNC's fate Thursday night, whatever that might be. He finished 2012 on an impressive hot streak, completing more than 70 percent of his throws over the final four games and averaging well over 300 passing yards per contest. The Tar Heels may need a performance like that to pull off the upset.
Mike Davis -- Davis is the heir apparent at running back for South Carolina, but what the Gamecocks will get out of him in this game and over the course of the season is tough to gauge. Davis carried the ball just 52 times as a freshman in 2012, though he did average a solid 5.3 yards per attempt. Brandon Wilds, who sat out last season because of injury, is also expected to get some carries.
Two things at stake
South Carolina is thinking bigger than just winning the SEC -- the Gamecocks are in a position for a run at the national championship game. That obviously leaves little margin for error. This game may have no bearing on the conference race, but in the grand scheme, it's a contest South Carolina can ill afford to lose.
The stakes are not as great for North Carolina. This is essentially a "gravy game," which is to say that nobody is going to expect the Tar Heels to win, so if they don't, it's not a huge deal. The game is important to UNC, to be sure, it just doesn't much impact their long-term goals one way or the other. Additionally, the ACC could really use the the boost in perception that might come with a good showing.
How to witness
TV: ESPN (Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer, David Pollack and Samantha Ponder)
Online streaming: ESPN3
Tar Heel Blog has a look at UNC's depth chart heading into Thursday's opener, and the site has been previewing the team by position. South Carolina blog Garnet And Black Attack examines how Clowney compares to past defensive players who were Heisman candidates.