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Opponent Q&A: North Carolina

Getting to know our friends across the border.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the final edition of our Opponent Q&A series, featuring the North Carolina Tar Heels, South Carolina’s combatant in Thursday’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Many thanks to Brandon Anderson of sister site Tar Heel Blog for his insightful answers to our burning questions.

While South Carolina is coming into this game as a sort of storybook ending to Shane Beamer’s first year in Columbia, the Mayo Bowl feels like a bit of a consolation prize for a North Carolina team that started the season with a top-10 ranking. How did such a promising start get derailed?

I think the easiest explanation for what happened is that the Heels were overrated going into the season. Nobody ever likes hearing/reading that word, but the truth is that this team wasn’t a top-ten team. Everyone underestimated just how important now-NFL running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter were to the team, and there was this idea out there that the offensive line would be great because they were all upperclassmen and in reality they were pretty bad. We also hoped that the defense would take a step forward in Mack Brown’s third season and things didn’t really get much better. Because of all of this I’m pretty terrified of how things go next season once Sam Howell heads off to the NFL. The big lesson in all of this: have enough awareness to realize what talent is on the team, as well as what you’re losing. Carter, Williams, Howell, and even Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome were special players that are just really hard to replace.

Related, what’s the general mood in Chapel Hill? Are folks viewing the middling results this year as simply an unfortunate aberration, or is there any concern that Mack Brown, despite his continued recruiting prowess, might be losing his touch on game day?

I think a lot of people are pretty down about what happened this season. There are fans that are really mad with Mack Brown and feel like he is fitting nicely into his “used car salesman” suit, but really I think some of the issues are beyond him. I’ve personally been pretty critical of our offensive and defensive coordinators — Phil Longo’s Air Raid offense has had plenty of good moments, but there’s some deep flaws in it as well, particularly in the red zone. As for Jay Bateman, his defensive scheme has had a really hard time producing sacks / overall playmaking. Defensive lineman Myles Murphy seems to be the only one that can fairly regularly get to the quarterback, so it’s all been really frustrating. I think people are begging for change, and while there’s a minority that want Mack Brown gone already, I think most of us just want an overall shakeup in specialty jobs.

With bowl game opt-outs for NFL-ready stars quickly becoming the norm in college football, UNC got a great Christmas gift when quarterback Sam Howell announced he would play. Although he didn’t have his best year passing, he arguably made up for it with a ton of production on the ground. What do the Gamecocks need to do to keep Howell under control, and the Tar Heel offense off schedule?

As good as Howell is, I think the key to stopping him is limiting his run game. He had the most luck whenever he was able to threaten defenses with his feet, and if you take that away he doesn’t have a lot to work with. The wide receivers have been pretty mediocre this season with the exception of Josh Downs, and I think teams have learned by now that they can lock him down and mostly be fine. If I did have to point to another receiver that has had measurable success though, I’d say Antoine Green is another receiver to watch out for. He wasn’t able to produce much during the first half of the season, but I feel like he eventually had a lot of good moments. Still, I would take my chances on making Howell pay when he tries to run, and make him throw the ball instead. There’s only so much damage he’ll be able to do if he can’t run and Downs is well covered.

With Howell back, Tar Heel fans have to feel great about the UNC offense vs. the South Carolina defense. Defensively, though, what are some areas of weakness the Gamecocks could exploit? More generally, is there anything that’s been keeping UNC fans up at night about this matchup?

UNC has been terrible at stopping mobile quarterbacks, which is ironic considering the fact that they’ve gone against Howell in practice. Without fail, any quarterback that has the ability to run has tortured UNC’s defense, which has been perplexing to say the least. I think the key for SC is to pound the ball as much as they can, and then utilize some play action plays for when the Heels become overly concerned with stopping the run. Do that, and I think Shane Beamer gets to enjoy the first-ever mayo bath (assuming our chains aren’t being yanked this time. I really want to see someone get a mayo bath).

Finally, care to make a prediction?

I feel like Sam Howell will do anything he can to end his UNC career on a high note, and really I think the entire team will do everything they can to help him. The X-Factor for the Heels would have to be British Brooks, who has been running really well over the last few games. I’m going to predict a score of UNC 35, SCAR 25, which is a nod to one of the most infuriating losses of the season (Florida State). Best of luck to you guys!