Luke DeCock

DeCock: Tar Heels hoping to steal spotlight

After reading all of Jadeveon Clowney’s clippings, perhaps the most amazing thing is that North Carolina will bother to show up in Columbia at all. Gladiators were given better odds against lions.

After what Clowney did to Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl, Thursday night’s game isn’t just the beginning of the season, the opening act of what is presumed to be a season-long coronation of the South Carolina defensive end as the No.1 pick in the NFL draft.

The popular perception is that the Tar Heels are taking knives to a gunfight in Columbia. Maybe they are. Or maybe they’ve got more firepower than anyone is giving them credit for having. Either way, the skewed expectations created by Clowney’s stardom make it a no-lose game for North Carolina, win or lose.

If the Tar Heels are annihilated, Clowney was supposed to do that – singlehandedly – anyway. If they keep it tight, they’ll be commended for surviving. And if they win, and objectively there is no reason the Tar Heels cannot, they will have captured the attention of the college football world in the season’s opening game.

“This is a tremendous opportunity that’s been provided to us that we get to open up on national TV, against a great football team,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “What an opportunity for our football team to showcase who we really are, who the 2013 Tar Heels are. For me, it’s kind of a measuring stick of where we are in Year 2 of the program.”

It’s a different dynamic than last year’s local battles with the SEC, when N.C. State took on Tennessee in Atlanta. That was supposed to be the nationally televised springboard to a breakthrough season of double-digit wins, at least before the Vols’ Cordarrelle Patterson made David Amerson look like he was headed for the Washington Generals and not the Washington Redskins. To the extent it was a measuring stick, the Wolfpack came up woefully short, a fitting beginning to a disappointing 7-6 season.

Even North Carolina’s last SEC opener, against Louisiana State in 2010, was fraught with expectation. That isn’t the case this year, in part because of the Tar Heels’ losses on the offensive line and defensive failings last season, in part because of Clowney. This game isn’t even No.1 on the list for ACC-SEC bragging rights, such as they are; Virginia Tech is the league’s standard-bearer, taking on Alabama in the Georgia Dome on Saturday.

This game is about the night lights shining brightly on Clowney, even if the Tar Heels might just sneak out of the shadows and bask in a little of the glare themselves.

“Everybody in the country has seen (the hit),” Fedora said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people out there in the world will turn that TV on to see what No.7 (Clowney) does to No.2 (Bryn Renner). But that’s great for us. When they turn that TV on they’re going to see Carolina blue also. It’s a great window on our university to show who we are and who the Tar Heels are all about.”

Never mind if you really pin down an NFL scout, he’ll admit Clowney might not be the No.1 pick on the board at this moment. He might not even be No.2. There’s a quarterback (Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater) and an offensive tackle (Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews) who could easily slip ahead of Clowney on need or merit or both.

Which is to take nothing away from Clowney, let alone the other circumstances of the evening. He’s a big-time player and this is a big-time game. For the moment, it’s Clowney’s night and the opponent is immaterial, at least that’s the narrative.

It’s a narrative Fedora is happy to accept at the moment, because his team has the potential to exit as the show-stopper even if it will enter as a supporting actor.