Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. UT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – North Carolina's third bowl appearance in as many seasons will take place in front of a pro-Tennessee crowd as the Tar Heels and Volunteers square off in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Thursday night at 6:30pm EST (ESPN).

The Tar Heels (7-5) enter the 32nd meeting between these two programs as a one-point favorite, although that line has slowly shrunk in recent weeks. Tennessee (6-6) owns a 20-10-1 advantage in the series; however, the last meeting occurred way back in 1961. UNC and Tennessee had scheduled a home-and-home to start next fall, but UT athletic director Mike Hamilton opted to pay a $750,000 cancellation fee to kill the series, citing the need for an easier schedule.

As expected, media and fans of both schools criticized the decision, prompting Hamilton to push for a UNC-UT matchup in the Music City Bowl during the selection process.

"When we talked about potential matchups, we actually let (them) know that Carolina would be our first choice to play," Hamilton told reporters earlier this month. "We knew our fans wanted to play North Carolina."

In normal years, Hamilton's duck-and-run move would be a talking point for Tar Heel fans throughout the season. But 2010 has been anything but normal for the North Carolina football program. News broke in July that the NCAA was looking into improper benefits surrounding several prominent Tar Heel players, and then a second part of the investigation began in August when allegations of academic impropriety surfaced.

Add in a smorgasbord of injuries throughout the season and the sheer volume of attrition dealt to the North Carolina program is mind-boggling.

To date, there have been 35 different scholarship players – 41 percent of the roster – that have missed at least one game this season due to injury or suspension. Those numbers represent 92 lost starts and 208 lost games, unprecedented in recent college football history.

But, somehow, the Tar Heels find themselves with a winning record and a third straight appearance in a bowl game.

"This has been, in 37 years of coaching, one of the most – I hate saying satisfying – but one of the most gratifying [seasons] because of how hard this football team worked to put itself in position to have a successful season, and then to be able to manage the injuries, the suspensions and all of the things that this team has gone through," UNC head coach Butch Davis told reporters during the Music City Bowl's joint coaches' press conference on Wednesday.

Senior cornerback Kendric Burney, who sat out seven games this season due to his involvement in the NCAA investigation, echoed those sentiments earlier this month, saying, "I'm just happy with the fact that we're going to a bowl game, because all odds were against us at the beginning of the season. For this team to step up and do things that nobody thought we would ever do is remarkable."

This bowl game wouldn't serve as the appropriate ending to North Carolina's '10 campaign unless it followed the standard operating procedure of witnessing some bad news being delivered in the days leading up to kickoff, and that requirement took place on Monday when the school announced that running back Anthony Elzy (177.0 all-purpose yards per outing over his last three games) would not be able to play against Tennessee.

Davis confirmed on Wednesday that the fifth-year senior had not met his academic obligations, leaving a once-stocked stable missing five bodies.

Fortunately for the Tar Heels, they counter the inexperience of backup Hunter Furr (29 yards on five carries) with veteran tailback Shaun Draughn (477 yards, 5 TD), who has 15 career starts under his belt.

"Shaun has been a starter for us over the last couple of years, so we've got a lot of confidence in his ability to play," Davis said. "We really hate it for Anthony, but I think that Shaun will handle the situation well. For the first time probably in six weeks, he's as near 100 percent as he's been since the beginning of the season."

The most important piece to UNC's puzzle this season resides on the throwing arm of senior quarterback T.J. Yates (259-of-383 passing, 3,184 yards, 18 TD, 8 INT). The Marietta, Ga. native holds 31 school records and enters the Music City Bowl with 61 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. In his final two regular season outings, Yates torched the opposing defenses, completing 61 of his 79 passes for 675 yards and three touchdowns.

But while the senior signal caller has been critical on the field this season, he may have been even more important in the locker room.

"If any one single individual has been somewhat responsible behind the scenes for some of the composure that our football team has been able to maintain, it's clearly got to be T.J.," Davis said.

The Volunteers will counter UNC's veteran leader with a freshman upstart at quarterback by the name of Tyler Bray. The Kingsburg, Calif. product grabbed the starting job from Matt Simms after a solid second-half showing against South Carolina on Oct. 30, and then directed Tennessee to four straight victories by completing 73 of his 132 passes for 1,234 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in November.

One thing is for sure – both teams desperately want to end the '10 season on a high note.

"As much as everybody loves a bowl game – and Butch can speak to this because he's been to a bunch of them – it's no fun losing a bowl game, because your whole offseason is affected," Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said on Wednesday.

A win on Thursday would give North Carolina its third straight 8-5 record, marking the first time since '92-'94 that a UNC team posted eight wins in three consecutive seasons.

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