When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
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Line: N.C. State by 6
Three story lines
1. The Wolfpack has an NFL-esque defensive line stocked with next-level talent. That matches a Gamecocks offensive front looking to reverse a two-year trend of struggles. If USC can’t hold up, it’ll be a long day.
2. If the South Carolina front can hold up, the Wolfpack secondary is replacing four of its top six players from last season. That could open the door for the likes of Jake Bentley, Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards and Hayden Hurst.
3. The offseason talk for South Carolina’s defense has been a unit that will throw a lot of new players into the fire. The N.C. State offense has enough pieces to be somewhat dangerous, but was hardly a world-beating unit last season before it lost a bellcow runner.
Three players to watch
1. Senior tight end Jaylen Samuels led the Wolfpack with 55 receptions and seven touchdowns through the air, rushed for six scores and led the team in yards per carry.That might understate his impact. He’s a guy who can line up anywhere and a player the Gamecocks will have to track.
2. Junior quarterback Ryan Finley was the epitome of solid in 2016. He threw for 3,055 yards, 18 touchdowns, eight interceptions, completed about 60 percent of his passes and avoided sacks. Some have him projected for a big jump.
3. Picking a top N.C. State defensive lineman is like picking the best ice cream flavor, but senior defensive end Bradley Chubb isn’t a bad choice. He tied for 15th nationally in sacks (10) and fourth in tackles for loss (22 1/2) to lead a nasty group.
▪ The N.C. State defense gets most of the hype and for good reason. The foursome up front of Kentavius Street, B.J. Hill, Justin Jones and Bradley Chubb combined for 19.5 sacks and 39 1/2 tackles for loss. Then reserve Darian Roseboro had seven sacks and 11 1/2 tackles for loss.
▪ Dave Doeren’s teams historically were pure 4-3 with a bend-but-don’t-break style. But the past two years, that’s flipped. His 2016 unit was better at short-circuiting opposing drives and a bit more vulnerable to big plays. It also relies heavily on nickel personnel, as is standard across the sport. According to some metrics, the unit was top 15, and it closed things down against the run.
▪ The continuity in the front six is impressive, but the Wolfpack will be replacing four of its top six defensive backs.
▪ The Wolfpack attack is nothing if not quirky. It was in the hands of the highly creative Matt Canada and then transitioned to Eliah Drinkwitz, whose background is with Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Boise State’s Brian Harsin. The offense wasn’t a world beater last season, but it was interesting.
▪ N.C. State will mix spread and power formations, often lining up backs in the pistol and deploying a range of tight ends or extra backs. That’s all part of a strong perimeter run game.
▪ The most notable of those is Jaylen Samuels, an H-back who plays all over the field. He was the team’s top pass catcher, mostly on shorter stuff, its most explosive rusher and a solid blocker. He scored 13 rushing or receiving touchdowns.
▪ Quarterback Ryan Finley is a solid option at the helm of the offense. He avoided interceptions, could run just enough that a defense had to think about him and do what was asked.
▪ The biggest question will be how N.C. State makes up for the loss of Matthew Dayes, a productive workhorse who ran for 1,166 yards and accounted for just short of half the team’s carries. There are options, but none who got much work in 2016.