Sam Howell's first game as a North Carolina Tar Heel came against South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. UNC came out on top that day as the true freshman led a fourth-quarter charge to defeat the Gamecocks. Now, two years and nearly four months later, Howell will wrap up his college career by facing the same opponent in the same stadium, this time in the Duke's Mayo Bowl.
It will also be an interesting matchup of coaches. In 1987, as head coach of Tulane, Mack Brown faced Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer in their one and only meeting. This week, Brown will square off with Frank's son, Shane, and his South Carolina Gamecocks.
Both teams come into the game at 6-6, but their seasons were so very different. The Tar Heels entered 2021 with a top-10 ranking and eyes on the College Football Playoff, making a .500 finish an underwhelming achievement. But by getting to six wins, the other Carolina qualified for its first bowl game since 2018, and, considering the low expectations entering the fall, Beamer and his crew have to be lauded for their accomplishments.
The last meeting between the two came in that 2019 game, which was one of North Carolina's 33 wins in 56 contests.
Duke's Mayo Bowl: North Carolina (6-6) vs. South Carolina (6-6)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 30 at 11:30 a.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
Spread: North Carolina -9
When North Carolina Has the Ball
In a year when opt-outs are commonplace, Howell will be playing in the Duke's Mayo Bowl despite declaring for the NFL draft. With Josh Downs catching passes and Ty Chandler running the ball, the Big Three for the Heels will be ready to go for the bowl game. The trio provided a great deal of balance for the third-ranked total offense in the ACC this fall. After losing Javonte Williams and Michael Carter from last year's team, the rushing attack was supposed to suffer, but with Chandler's 1,063 yards and 825 more from Howell, North Carolina had the league's top ground game.
That may be the way the Heels go in this game, as South Carolina has given up more than 190 rushing yards in four of its last five games. Conversely, its pass defense was seventh in the country, allowing just 179 yards per game in the regular season. A key component in defending the pass is All-American safety Jaylan Foster, he of five interceptions and a team-leading 91 tackles. The Gamecocks were tied for 10th nationally with 15 interceptions as Cam Smith also chipped in with three.
South Carolina will be without defensive end Kingsley Enagbare, who had team-highs in tackles for lost yardage (7.0) and sacks (4.5), as he has chosen to prepare for the draft in his own way. Sacks were not a huge part of the South Carolina defensive equation this year, but the loss of Enagbare is impactful. The North Carolina offensive line, which was so good in the running game, was horrific in pass protection with 45 sacks allowed on the season. While the Heels will look to run the ball, creating big plays to Downs would certainly open up more options.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
The Zeb Noland story was well documented throughout the year. Employed as a graduate assistant coach, the former quarterback at Iowa State still had eligibility remaining. When injuries decimated the position, Noland suited up and led the Gamecocks to wins over Eastern Illinois and East Carolina as well as throwing a game-winning touchdown pass with 37 seconds remaining to knock off Vanderbilt.
With Jason Brown now in the transfer portal, the Gamecocks once again return to Noland, who didn't tend to push the ball downfield but also only threw one interception in 90 pass attempts. He will have his top receivers to throw to with Josh Vann leading the way. The running back room will be a bit different, as leading rusher Zaquandre White will not be playing, giving an opportunity to prized 2020 recruit Marshawn Lloyd to show what he can do going forward.
Overall, South Carolina had the 115th-ranked total offense in America, so it's not a unit that puts up big numbers. The Gamecocks finished down near the bottom of the SEC in just about every offensive category, and they don't create a lot of big plays. Being efficient by blocking well up front and not turning the ball over will be key. Those have been two trouble spots this year, however, as they allowed 29 sacks on the year and gave the ball away an SEC-worst 24 times.
The good news for South Carolina is that it is not going up against one of the nation's elite defenses. North Carolina is pretty consistent in terms of defending the pass and run, but mediocre is the term that probably describes their unit the best. Teams that threw the ball well (Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Virginia, etc.) had huge days when facing UNC. Notre Dame, Florida State, and Georgia Tech all beat the Heels by running the ball at will. The unit has talent, with Tomon Fox off the edge, Cam'Ron Kelly defending passes, and Jeremiah Gemmel and Cedric Gray making tackles, but the cohesiveness was not there for much of the season.
This will be a game of strength on strength and weakness on weakness. The North Carolina offense, which has carried the program for much of the past two years, will battle a solid Gamecock defense, while the South Carolina offense that will be led by the converted graduate assistant will face off with the Tar Heels' 101st-ranked scoring defense. The outcome may be determined by how the two head coaches decide what is important. Does winning the game really matter or is it about building for 2022? For South Carolina, getting playing time for younger players is probably the wisest course of action and that may be the case for North Carolina as well. But with Howell and Chandler opting in, all involved will want to send them out with a win. And in both matchups, when North Carolina has the ball and when South Carolina has possession, the matchups favor the Tar Heels. As a result, North Carolina will win this year's Duke's Mayo Bowl.
Prediction: North Carolina 27, South Carolina 17
Podcast: Previewing Every Bowl Game
– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.