South Carolina opens up its season with an out-of-conference, neutral-site match-up with North Carolina on Aug. 31, its first against the Tar Heels since facing them at the same Bank of America Stadium to kick off the 2015 season.
Here's a look at the opening opponent:
Last year's record: 2-9
Last year vs. South Carolina - Did not play
Key losses - OL William Sweet, WR Anthony Ratliff-Williams, DE Malik Carney, LB Cole Holcomb, S J.K. Britt
After a brutal 2-9 finish to the Larry Fedora era at North Carolina, it's clearly an off-season of change in Chapel Hill as Mack Brown looks to recreate some of the magic from his first stop in town over 30 years ago.
Brown brings with him a new staff that will present a new look on both offense and defense.
The first order of business for Brown and new offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who spent the last two seasons at Ole Miss, will be to find a quarterback among a room with very little experience.
Former quarterback Chaz Surratt has been moved to linebacker, where he'll try to help a defense that has had plenty of struggles for the last two seasons. And quarterback Nathan Elliott, who would have been a senior, left school to take a coaching job.
Redshirt freshmen Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin played in four games each last season, allowing them to get some experience while still redshirting and will fight it out for the starting spot. But the wildcard could be former four-star quarterback and All-American Sam Howell, who enrolled early for spring practice after flipping late from Florida State. Howell may be the future of the position, but whether he's the guy versus the Gamecocks will depend on his early progress.
On defense, the Tar Heels will have to replace key figures at all three levels of a defense that allowed 34.5 points and over 200 rushing yards per game last season. That charge will be led by new defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, who put together salty defenses at Army for the last few years and is a two-time Broyles Award finalist.
Players to watch
The running backs – Cheating a bit here, but if there's one area that the Tar Heels seem to have both talent and depth it's at the running back position where Antonio Williams, Jordon Brown, and Michael Carter form a trio of capable runners. Williams, Brown and Carter split carries last year and combined for 1,453 yards and 10 touchdowns on 259 carries for a 5.61 yards per carry average.
OT Charlie Heck, Sr. – Now in his senior season and a multiyear starter on the offensive line, Heck is considered one of the best returning offensive linemen in the ACC. The 6-foot-8, 310-pounder should provide an interesting matchup for what is expected to be a much-improved South Carolina defensive line.
WR Dazz Newsome, Jr. - The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Newsome will be counted on to be the top receiver in Phil Longo's pass-happy offense and help replace the production of former top receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams. Newsome caught 44 passes for 506 yards and two touchdowns on 66 targets last season. His PFF grade of 73.3 last year was actually tops for North Carolina receivers.
With a new head coach and two new coordinators, knowing what to expect from North Carolina will be tough from both scheme and personnel standpoints.
South Carolina obviously faced a Phil Longo-led offensive attack last season at Ole Miss, but the Rebels team featured a wealth of talent at quarterback and wide receiver. As noted above, that's not necessarily the case for the Tar Heels.
With a trio of talent in the backfield, the usually pass-happy Longo may be forced to lean more on the running game until the Heels get their quarterback and receiver situations set.
North Carolina may lean on one of its (slightly) more experienced quarterbacks early in either of its redshirt freshmen (each played four games last season), but Sam Howell seems a strong fit for the offense as he makes quick decisions, can get the ball out in a hurry, and has enough athleticism to move around. It's not that far-fetched to think that UNC may just roll with the true freshman and let him learn on the job.
While we mentioned Newsome above, look out for wide receiver Dyami Brown - an incredible high school playmaker who we saw in person at that level - to move up the pecking order and excel in Longo's offense.
Defensively, Jay Bateman is expected to employ a multiple, attacking-style of aggressive defense out of a 3-4 base, though, much like on offense, it remains to be seen if he has the players in place to use the scheme he ultimately hopes to. But if Bateman's early comments are any indication, he has no designs of having his defense sit back on its heels and wait -- he's going to blitz and attack.
He's actually got a few key returning starters to work with in the secondary in free safety Myles Dorn and cornerback Trey Morrison, but there are major concerns at defensive end and linebacker.
South Carolina, obviously, has its own major players to replace, none bigger than do-it-all playmaker Deebo Samuel, but this match-up should offer an opportunity for Bryan McClendon and the Gamecocks' offense to erase some of the lingering bad taste from their last trip to Bank of America Stadium.