Prized QBs front and center in battle of Carolinas

Two of the top quarterbacks in the country share the spotlight as No. 21 North Carolina and South Carolina kick off their seasons in the Duke’s Mayo Classic on Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C.

Drake Maye returns for the Tar Heels after passing for 4,321 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions as the ACC Player of the Year in 2022, his first season as the starter.

Spencer Rattler tallied 3,026 yards passing with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with the Gamecocks last season after transferring from Oklahoma, where he also had a 3,000-yard season in 2020.

South Carolina coach Shane Beamer said he understands why many are projecting Maye as a top-five pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. Maye was also UNC’s leading rusher with 698 yards last season, adding seven touchdowns.

“He is a really talented player, not just a thrower, but as an athlete, being able to run as well,” Beamer said of preparing for Maye. “So we’ve got to do a great job of corralling him, and that also means offensively, we’ve got to be able to stay on the field and score points, because you’re facing a team with a really good quarterback.”

North Carolina finished 9-5 last season after dropping its final four games. Maye had four TD passes and four picks during that slide as the Tar Heels fell to Georgia Tech and NC State at home before losing to Clemson in the ACC title game and Oregon in the Holiday Bowl.

South Carolina, by contrast, finished 8-5 after notching big wins against then-No. 5 Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson in November. Rattler threw for a combined 798 yards and eight TDs against the Volunteers and Tigers, then added 246 yards and two TDs in a 45-38 loss to Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl.

“I think the biggest challenge is stopping [Rattler], because like Drake, when he gets hot he can run up and down the field,” Tar Heels coach Mack Brown said on his radio show Monday. “That’s why they were so good at the end of the year. They beat a Tennessee team that was hot. They beat a Clemson team that won our league and beat us and then came down to the end of the game with Notre Dame. They really finished the season strong.”

To start this week, North Carolina remained in limbo regarding one of Maye’s biggest weapons, wide receiver Tez Walker. The NCAA denied his immediate eligibility request because this is his second transfer, and UNC filed an appeal. He caught 58 passes for 921 yards and 11 touchdowns with the Golden Flashes last season.

The Tar Heels were counting on Walker to replace Josh Downs, the two-time 1,000-yard receiver who was picked in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts.

Rattler’s receiving corps includes five-star true freshman Nyck Harbor and 2022 All-SEC selection Antwane Wells Jr., who caught 68 passes for 928 yards and six scores last season.

The border rivals are meeting for the 60th time, with North Carolina holding a 35-20-4 lead in the all-time series, including a 3-2 edge in games played at a neutral site. South Carolina won the most recent contest, 38-21, at the Duke’s Mayo Bowl on Dec. 30, 2021.

–Field Level Media