Dec. 26, 2010
The fans wanted it. Now the fans will have it.
Tennessee began practice in Nashville on Sunday, five days before facing North Carolina in the Music City Bowl on Thursday (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The two teams, of course, were scheduled for a home-and-home series beginning next season. When that was cancelled, fans reiterated their desire to see the schools play on the football field, and both administrations wanted it, too.
The teams have a history, competing 31 previous times on the field starting in 1893. They played every year from 1945-1961, and Tennessee holds a 20-10-1 edge in the series. Thanks to the Music City Bowl matchup, the border battle will be revived.
"We're playing a great opponent," Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said. "It's as talented a team as I've seen all year on film. Very talented. Great coaches. Went through a lot of adversity that affected their results, but they did a great job to overcome it."
North Carolina comes into the bowl game with a 7-5 record, having gone through the ACC with a 4-4 mark and finishing third in the Coastal Division of the conference. The Tar Heels' signature victory on the season was a 37-35 upset at Florida State.
North Carolina' signature loss, however, was off the field.
The Tar Heels began the season ranked No. 18 with lofty conference and national expectations after the year they had in 2009. Things were quickly squashed as the NCAA investigated potential academic violations and possible improper relationships between student-athletes and agents. In a proactive response, North Carolina benched 13 key players for its opener against LSU, including six defensive starters (including its entire secondary), its leading wide receiver and its top two running backs.
As the season unfolded, the question hovered above the Tar Heels as to what this team could have done had the investigation not lingered.
Five players have been dismissed from the team, four have been ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA, and associate head coach John Blake resigned as his name became affiliated with the investigation. In all, 16 players have missed at least one game due to their link to the investigation and UNC is waiting for the NCAA's ultimate response.
North Carolina head coach Butch Davis and his team, however, pressed onward. Seven Tar Heels were named to the All-ACC team as either first team, second team or honorable mention.
"In 37 years of coaching, I don't know that I've ever been around a group of kids that is as resilient, as hard-working, as willing to buy into doing whatever it would take, the sacrifices they were going to have to make, the ability to block out distractions and focus on the things they could control and play and compete as hard as they could," Davis said. "For whatever little amount of time you look back and say what could've been, I look back and say what did happen. I'm very proud of them."
A byproduct of the investigation was an increase in depth for the Tar Heels, Davis said.
"I promise you there were about 15-18 kids who thought, `I'm not going to play very much at all this year at Carolina.' Then, all of a sudden against LSU, they find themselves as either starters or significant contributors," Davis said. "That will pay dividends in the future."
The LSU game to open the season was pivotal, and North Carolina nearly pulled off the improbable, battling back from a 20-point halftime deficit for two legit shots at winning the game in the closing seconds. The Tar Heels lost, however, 30-24.
"I thought one of the most remarkable performances was that first game, when they were missing I don't know how many guys," said Dooley, whose Vols also lost to LSU in the closing moments 16-14. "You all know how good LSU is. The way (North Carolina) competed all year is just a real tribute to excellent coaching."
The Tar Heels lost again the following week against Georgia Tech by the same score.
The rest of the time, the Tar Heels lost the games they were supposed to lose (Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina State), and won the games they should've won (Rutgers, East Carolina, Clemson, Virginia, William & Mary and Duke).
"They had a lot of guys missing, but it's incredible how deep they are with a lot of good skill players that, when they were hurting at the beginning of the season, they still had great players behind them," said UT linebacker Nick Reveiz.
It was no overnight revelation, warned Davis. The fact that his UNC team was prepared to handle the adversity of being short-handed can be attributed to its long-term preparation.
"Our juniors and seniors maintained course. That's not something that's developed. You don't get that in Year 1 in 2007," Davis said. "It's built over time as kids learn what it takes to actually win football games, the importance of special teams, the importance of depth."
A pretty stellar passing game doesn't hurt either.
The Tar Heels averaged 266.5 yards per game through the air (ranked 25th in the nation) behind quarterback T.J. Yates' arm. Yates threw for 3,184 yards and 18 touchdowns, completing 67.6 percent of his passes. Dwight Jones was the recipient of most of that production. Jones caught 57 passes for 895 yards in the regular season.
Names, however, aren't as important as UNC's schemes and designed shifts to try to mislead its opponents, Reveiz said.
"Honestly, I don't even know names on their team; I just know they've got a lot of good players," Reveiz said. "They have a good pro-style offense and a good quarterback. They do a lot of shifts, a lot of motion, a lot of things to try to confuse you a lot. It's going to be key for us to be disciplined, run our alignments; know what we need to do to react to it."
North Carolina averages 24.9 points per game. It unloaded twice by scoring 42 points on East Carolina and 44 against Virginia.
Defensively, UNC gives up 22.9 points, but just two of its losses were lopsided. The Tar Heels lost 33-10 to Miami and 26-10 to Virginia Tech, two of the best teams in the ACC. The other three losses were by six points or less.
"I don't know a whole lot about North Carolina, but I do know they have a very balanced defense," said UT tight end Luke Stocker. "They're a very good football team. Their record doesn't speak to how good they are. You look across their depth chart and they have a lot of talented players across their defense. We're going to have our work cut out for us."
With UNC's depth, talent and potent offense, yes, a task awaits the Vols. The Tar Heels have stared at adversity and moved on despite the cloud of an NCAA ruling that lingers. Yet that off-field concern isn't going to make a tackle or throw a touchdown, and the Vols know that.
"Who wouldn't want this game to be played?" Reveiz said. "We're very excited about it."