CHARLOTTE — Scenes few humans expected to see in downtown Charlotte on Saturday:
• North Carolina head coach Mack Brown, the recently retired ESPN studio host, looking like a lottery winner during an on-field postgame interview.
• Much-maligned Tar Heels players spending 20 minutes high-fiving fans.
• South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, talking to reporters after a 24-20 loss about what is considered his deepest Gamecocks team and saying things like, “extremely disappointed with the tackling and lack of tackling.”
It was the ideal setup for Gamecocks redemption, a date with a callow, theoretically weak opponent.
Better yet, the 2019 season opener was on the same Bank of America Stadium field where South Carolina ended the 2018 season with a thud, a 28-0 Belk Bowl loss to Virginia.
The Gamecocks were favored in that one, too.
But instead of turning the page on a mediocre 7-6 season, South Carolina turned back the clock to disastrous starts of yesteryear.
Saturday’s mishap is worse than the 52-28 home debacle against Texas A&M in 2014 that started the unraveling in Steve Spurrier’s second-to-last season. That was SEC football.
It’s also the first season-opening loss to a non-conference opponent since 1999, a 10-0 loss in a downpour at N.C. State in Lou Holtz’s first game as coach.
That team went on to finish 0-11.
This team will win at least one game; the Gamecocks play Charleston Southern next week.
But these Gamecocks are suspect until proven otherwise. With the CSU game followed by a sure loss to No. 2 Alabama on Sept. 14, we won’t learn significantly more until a Sept. 21 trip to Missouri.
Before Saturday, the Gamecocks’ burden of proof was Alabama, Georgia and Clemson (in schedule order).
Now it’s Vanderbilt and Appalachian State.
Bad blocking and planning
Underdog North Carolina was the tougher team down the stretch, rallying from 20-9 down.
Senior quarterback Jake Bentley threw two interceptions in the final four minutes.
The new North Carolina coaching staff, 1-0 in Brown’s second stint in Chapel Hill, won the creativity contest.
The Gamecock coaching staff was timid.
A decision to punt on fourth-and-1 from midfield with a 20-17 lead and 12 minutes left backfired when the Tar Heels drove 95 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
North Carolina won most battles for 50-50 balls.
The Gamecocks’ offensive line was not ready for prime time, or for any time slot.
Bentley was a mere 16 of 30 for 142 yards. But the poor guy was chased out of the pocket much of the day, the victim of porous protection. Bentley rushed only three times, not enough to take pressure off his blockers.
“We’ll go back and evaluate,” Muschamp said. “There was more pressure than we would have liked, obviously.”
As promised, South Carolina worked third-team quarterback Dakereon Joyner into the mix. But North Carolina defensive co-coordinators Jay Bateman and Tommy Thigpen are pretty smart; they read that Joyner was a good runner at Fort Dorchester High School. An end-around play to Joyner (technically a pitch pass) resulted in no gain on the Gamecocks’ first series and Joyner’s only other contribution was a 4-yard reception.
Here comes Hilinski
Freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski likely will get a long look at quarterback against CSU. The coaches, who know what they know from long hours of scrimmage evaluation, are solidly in Bentley’s corner.
But if fans see a good Hilinski performance, a quarterback controversy — everywhere but in the locker room — is sure to follow.
It could be worse; the Gamecocks didn’t lose at home to Georgia State.
That October trip to Tennessee should be interesting.
Note that the Gamecocks still have four quarterbacks on the schedule that have combined to start seven College Football Playoff games.
The grind starts in two weeks with Tua Tagovailoa (two CFP starts and also a dazzling relief appearance in a national title win over Georgia), followed the next week by Missouri’s Kelly Bryant (Clemson starter vs. Alabama in 2017) and also including Georgia’s Jake Fromm (two starts in the 2017 season) and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (two starts last season).
Then again, all quarterbacks are suddenly scary for a team that just let Tar Heels freshman Sam Howell complete 5 of 6 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Brown said after the game that his players were happier than Texas players were after they won the 2005 BCS National Championship.
Muschamp later served as Brown’s Texas defensive coordinator, which made the postgame handshake bittersweet for the winner.
“Will, you have a really good team,” Brown said.
Not Saturday, not even close.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff