After a three-year absence, the South Carolina Gamecocks are back in bowl season, although they’ll be playing a very familiar foe in a very familiar locale. While the Gamecocks and North Carolina Tar Heels will bring identical records to Charlotte’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl, it was a tale of two different seasons for the programs: USC overachieved in coach Shane Beamer’s first year, while UNC turned in a dud after many expected them to turn a corner under prodigal coach Mack Brown. Both teams should be looking to make a statement in this one — especially with the whole “Carolina” thing.
What have they been up to lately? Despite starting the season with a No. 10 ranking and a bunch of Heisman hype for junior quarterback Sam Howell, the Tar Heels posted a 6-6 mark and finished fifth in the ACC’s muddled Coastal, besting only 2-6 Georgia Tech and a woeful 0-8 Duke in the division’s pecking order. It was a head-scratching season for UNC, which faceplanted out of the gate with a baffling loss to Virginia Tech and took another ugly L to the Yellow Jackets, but also outgunned Wake Forest in a thriller, hung tough against Notre Dame, and almost pulled off an unlikely escape against N.C. State in one of rivalry week’s games of the year. With so much offensive firepower — and the program clearly under the stewardship it needs with Brown — it’s puzzling the Tar Heels couldn’t make more of their 2021 campaign.
What happens when the Gamecocks have the ball? With Jason Brown’s transfer, Luke Doty’s injury, and Colten Gauthier’s redshirt, the quarterback job is Zeb Noland’s by default. It’s a nice opportunity for him to have a swan song with the program, and he may get some opportunities with an 87th-ranked Tar Heels defense that gave up an average of 408 yards and nearly 32 points per game (and was 11th in scoring defense in ACC play). With spark plug and rushing leader ZaQuandre White lost to the transfer portal, the Gamecocks will need their other backs to step up, although at least leading receiver Josh Vann will suit up for South Carolina. As always with this unit, though, it comes back to the performance of the offensive line, which has been underwhelming at best and often downright awful, outside of a few bright spots like the Florida game. Noland is more of a game manager, but there won’t be much for him to manage if he can’t keep his jersey clean.
What happens when the Tar Heels have the ball? As Howell goes, so go the Tar Heels. While he didn’t end up cracking the Heisman finalist list — or even staying in that conversation past the season’s first couple weeks or so — this is still an offense-oriented team that features multiple talented playmakers. Howell himself is dynamic, having passed for 2,851 yards and 23 touchdowns (against nine interceptions) and rushing for a career-high 824 yards and 11 more scores. Receiver Josh Downs was second in the ACC with 1,273 yards and grabbed eight touchdowns, and running back Ty Chandler was third in the league with 1,063 yards and 13 scores. The Gamecocks are going to have their hands full containing this group, especially without sack leader Kingsley Enagbare. Jaylan Foster and the rest of the secondary need to come to play if South Carolina has any hope of rendering the UNC offense one-dimensional.
What are we wearing? As usual, it’s a mystery, although the Tar Heels have announced their outfit for the occasion (retro 90s blue-on-white). The Gamecocks, then, seem likely to trot out their white jerseys, though with which pants and which helmet, it’s anyone’s guess. Personally, I’m rooting for anything but the Stormtrooper look.
How are we feeling about this? As I’ve said many times before in this space, not great. Between transfers and guys looking ahead to the NFL, the Gamecocks have had a pile of opt-outs for this game, and while I’ll never begrudge a player for looking out for his best interests, it undeniably leaves the team in a bit of a bind (and the betting line has continued to rise in light of those transactions). North Carolina, on the other hand, got the frankly remarkable gift of Howell deciding to play in his final collegiate game, so the Tar Heels have a huge edge offensively while the Gamecocks will be hoping a bunch of next-man-up performers can come through. Bowl season is weird, though, and often comes down to a team’s simple desire to be there — we’ve certainly watched talented Gamecock teams turn in awful, apathetic performances while their opponents treated it like the Super Bowl. Given the horrendous lack of preparation and interest in the last bowl game South Carolina “showed up” for in Charlotte, I’ll be looking and hoping for a whole different approach from Beamer, at the very least.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.