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2019 Opponent Preview: North Carolina

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The Clash of the Carolinas renews with the Tar Heels hoping that what’s old is new again with Mack Brown.

Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images

After a brief one-year hiatus from opening the season against a Power 5 opponent, the South Carolina Gamecocks return to their usual scheduling philosophy with a date against a semi-frequent ACC foe in the North Carolina Tar Heels. As is typical for this Belk Kickoff contest, the game will be played in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium as something of a border bash, though a true rivalry has yet to take hold. Nonetheless, it’s certainly a more appetizing opener than the assortment of cupcakes most college football teams will be feasting on in Week 1. In the first of our opponent previews, let’s take a look at the initial challenger on what is universally agreed to be a very tough slate for the 2019 Gamecocks.

Last meeting: In 2015, South Carolina came away with a hard-fought 17-13 victory that was as excruciating as the score indicates. Linebacker Skai Moore picked off UNC twice in the end zone, once in the final minutes to seal the win, and Shon Carson broke off an unlikely 48-yard touchdown run to make the difference for the Gamecocks. Ironically, the two teams went in radically opposite directions afterward: North Carolina won 11 games on its way to an ACC Coastal division championship, while USC limped to an awful 3-9 finish that saw legendary coach Steve Spurrier resign before the season was out. That first Saturday of the season was a rare highlight in an otherwise miserable campaign, but at least it meant the Gamecocks won their third straight against the Tar Heels.

Oh, and Connor Mitch was USC’s quarterback, which makes this game feel even more like it was several lifetimes ago.

Last season: Speaking of horrible finishes, North Carolina had a rough go of it in 2018. The Tar Heels posted a 2-9 (1-7 ACC) record, culminating in once-promising coach Larry Fedora’s firing. Their lone victories came against a so-so Pitt squad and FCS Western Carolina, and UNC suffered an ignoble blowout loss to East Carolina to really twist the knife. The Tar Heels also went winless on the road while allowing 34.6 points per game, and at one point had to deal with Fedora making weird, PR nightmarish comments about the link between football and CTE. In short, it was bad times in Chapel Hill.

Player to watch out for: Not a player in this case, but a coach — former UNC head man Mack Brown is back at the program he once left for greener pastures at Texas. His original stint with the Tar Heels from 1988-1997 encompassed some of the program’s most glorious years with five straight bowl appearances, consistent Top 25 rankings, and a couple 10-win seasons — a mark which had only been achieved once before him. Brown currently has 69 total wins (nice), good for second in school history, and is back on the sidelines after a stint in broadcasting when Texas tired of being merely above average and moved on from their onetime national title-winning coach. Given Brown’s history in Chapel Hill and his age (67), it’s an interesting storyline.

In the spirit of this bullet point, though, I’ll go ahead and mention freshman quarterback Sam Howell. Howell was Brown’s first big recruiting splash, as the country’s second-ranked dual threat and four-star prospect flipped from Florida State to UNC on Signing Day. Ever since the departure of Mitchell Trubisky to the NFL, the Tar Heels have been searching for an answer at quarterback, a process that has combined with suspect defense to utterly derail their past couple seasons (UNC went 3-9 in 2017). Howell, an early enrollee, has a chance to come in and give UNC hope at the position.

Prognosis: The Mack Brown Comeback Tour has some UNC fans excited and others cautiously optimistic, but it’s hard to expect much out of his first year back on the job, especially with factors like the aforementioned question mark at quarterback. The Tar Heels also have a schedule that isn’t particularly friendly to a rebuild (Clemson, at Virginia Tech, Virginia, at N.C. State stand out). UNC is unlikely to make a bowl this season, although the Tar Heels could be well on their way to improvement in 2020. That’s not the Gamecocks’ problem, though — at least not until 2023, when the teams have agreed to meet again.