This isn’t where the North Carolina football team figured it would conclude the 2021 season, but in many ways, the Duke’s Mayo Bowl comes full circle for standout quarterback Sam Howell.

The Tar Heels take on South Carolina on Dec. 30 in Charlotte.

It’s the same stadium and the same opponent from the game in which Howell began his record-setting college career in 2019. While speculation is high that the junior will head to the NFL after this season, he wanted another game with the Tar Heels.

“All the advice I got was probably to not play in the bowl game, and everyone was probably expecting me not to,” Howell said. “(But) this is what I want to do. … I just love this team, I love playing football, that’s the main thing, and I love this sport. So it wouldn’t sit right for me not playing the bowl game.”

There could be contrasting outlooks in the matchup, even though both teams hold 6-6 records.

North Carolina began the season in the Top 10 before tumbling. South Carolina is in its first season under Shane Beamer and largely is considered an overachiever.

“We didn’t meet our expectations this year and South Carolina did, because a lot of people were talking about the struggles they were going to have and they had some quarterbacks hurt,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “(Beamer’s team) beat Florida and he beat Auburn, so I’m very proud of Shane and look forward to competing against him in this bowl game.”

The Gamecocks will be aiming to build more momentum.

“Six wins with the opportunity to get seven. Five come-from-behind wins this season,” Beamer said. “We have higher goals than six wins and bowl eligibility, but it’s a heck of a start for this program.”

Beamer views this opportunity as a way to strengthen what has been accomplished the past few months.

“We’ve got a lot of young players,” he said. “We’re building this thing. Year 1 was a great Year 1 for us from a foundation standpoint. There’s work to be done because you’re trying to win a football game.”

Howell threw two touchdown passes in a 24-20 victory in the 2019 opener against South Carolina when the teams met at Bank of America Stadium, which is home to the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The upcoming bowl game is another challenge for Howell, who is from the Charlotte area.

“They’re very talented on the defensive line, they have three really good defensive ends that are athletic,” North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “They’re good pass rushers, they’re physical, they get off blocks and you got seven guys on the South Carolina defense that are veterans.”

North Carolina leads the series with South Carolina by 35-19-4, including 3-1 at neutral sites.

“I know it’s going to be a fantastic atmosphere,” Beamer said.

South Carolina’s lone bowl visit to Charlotte resulted in a 28-0 loss to Virginia in 2018. The Gamecocks haven’t been in a bowl game since then, as last year’s Gasparilla Bowl matchup vs. UAB was called off due to COVID-19 issues in the South Carolina program.

Gamecocks running back ZaQuandre White has opted out of this year’s bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft after posting 583 rushing yards and 202 receiving yards this year.

Brown, who led Texas to the title in 2005, went into the College Football Hall of Fame in the same year as Frank Beamer, the legendary Virginia Tech coach and Shane’s father.

Brown’s teams hold a 14-9 bowl record.

–Field Level Media