Gamecocks, Tar Heels meet on different footing for opener

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              FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2018, file photo, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp answers a question during a news conference for the Belk Bowl NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C. The Gamecocks host both of the participants in last year’s College Football Playoff championship game: Clemson and Alabama. They also travel to Georgia, the runner-up in the national championship game two years ago. South Carolina’s schedule shapes up as arguably the nation’s toughest. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — The challenges are different for South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and North Carolina coach Mack Brown entering their season opener this weekend.

Muschamp is hoping the Gamecocks will see gains after spending the past three seasons building up depth and talent on his roster. South Carolina has gone to bowl games in all three years and has experience back from that run with seven returning starters on both sides of the ball, including a senior quarterback in Jake Bentley with 32 career starts.

“I think we’ve said it before that we think it’s our most talented team we’ve had and the deepest team that we’ve had, just going back to the different training camps we’ve had and where we are right now with our team,” Muschamp said. “I think that’s a product of recruiting well and developing players well and I think that brings you a little confidence as a head coach.”

Brown, on the other hand, is in a very different position. The College Football Hall of Fame member will be back on the sidelines for first time since his exit from Texas after the 2013 season, and his return comes at the program he led to top-10 national status more than two decades ago.

Saturday’s game in Charlotte, North Carolina, will offer the first gameday look at his efforts to stabilize a program wobbled by two bad years filled with close losses, shaken confidence and waves of injuries.

“This bunch has tried since we’ve been here,” Brown said. “I expect them to play hard. The question will be their confidence because they haven’t played together as a team. And we’ve tried to get rid of my past, get rid of their past and it’s all about now.”

Here are some other things to know about the South Carolina-North Carolina opener:

FRESH START

North Carolina’s new offense is led by a player taking his first college snaps.

That offense, coordinated by Phil Longo, aims to blend power running with “Air Raid” elements in the passing game. Sam Howell won a three-way preseason battle for the starting job, with the school saying he’s believed to be the first true freshman to start a season opener in program history.

“He does have the ability to run the football and he’s done an incredible job learning the system,” Longo said. “So the trick for him as a freshman is going to be to play within the system and play within his own ability and make some good decisions.”

MOVING ON

Tavien Feaster won two national championship rings with Clemson. Now he’s part of South Carolina’s backfield as a graduate transfer, playing for his former school’s rival after running for 1,109 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

Clemson opened the season Thursday against Georgia Tech. Asked if he planned to watch the game, Feaster quipped: “I believe I have class Thursday.”

BAD STARTS

The Tar Heels haven’t beaten a power-conference opponent in an opener since topping Indiana of the Big Ten in 1997, which was Brown’s final season in his first stint at UNC. They have won just eight openers in 21 seasons since.

HEALTHY FOR ONCE

UNC’s mounting injuries over the past two seasons cut into their depth and was a factor in their five-win total. That’s why it sounded so odd to hear the news that they had emerged from preseason camp with no significant injuries.

Brown said that was partly good fortune and partly an emphasis on recovery while closely monitoring players for fatigue that could contribute to injuries.

“Being able to come out every day and seeing less and less red jerseys is definitely a breath of fresh air,” said defensive tackle Aaron Crawford, who played just two games last year due to injury.

TIGHT END HELP

The Gamecocks are in desperate need of some good news at tight end after losing two key players there.

Projected starter Kiel Pollard had to give up football last month when a cyst was discovered on his spinal cord while diagnosing a neck injury. Doctors counseled Pollard it was not safe to continue playing. Then this week, Muschamp announced Evan Hinson was no longer part of the team as he planned to transfer and pursue basketball after playing both sports with the Gamecocks.