The Tigers and Tar Heels earned bids to the Independence Bowl from different directions – Missouri (7-5) won its final three games of the season while UNC dropped four of its last six after a 5-1 start.
But the fact that North Carolina even qualified for a postseason berth is a testament to the young men that make up the roster. After navigating through the turbulent 2010 campaign and following offseason, there was hope around the program that the dark cloud hanging overhead was slowly moving out of Chapel Hill.
Then head coach Butch Davis was fired just eight days before the start of training camp. The weight of the previous 18 months appeared to finally make a dent as the season wore along and the losses piled up in October and November.
The recent news that the majority of the current coaching staff would not be retained by new head coach Larry Fedora, as well as Dwight Jones's eligibility issue in light of a secondary NCAA violation for promoting his New Year's Eve birthday party, just offered more opportunities for distraction.
But the Tar Heels have made a habit of brushing aside those types of off-the-field issues and concentrating on the game at hand.
"We've dealt with adversity before, so it doesn't faze us," red-shirt sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner said.
Renner (68.8 completion percentage, 2,769 passing yards, 23 TD, 12 INT) will be counted on to perform well on Monday against a Missouri defense that has allowed 247.3 passing yards per game (91st nationally). Receivers Dwight Jones (79 catches, 1,119 yards, 11 TD) and Erik Highsmith (43 catches, 649 yards, 4 TD) provide quality targets for Renner, but red-shirt freshman running back Gio Bernard (1,222 yards, 13 TD) will be a key factor in setting up UNC's play-action passing game.
"They've got a very talented defensive line, but I feel like we match up well," UNC interim head coach Everett Withers said. "It's obviously one of our goals to be able to run the ball so that we can help Bryn in the passing game."
Missouri counters with its own lethal running attack. The Tigers' spread ranks 12th nationally in total offense (472.4 ypg) thanks to the 11th-best running game in the country (236.3 ypg). All-Big 12 running back Henry Josey (1,168 yards, 9 TD) suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, but backup Kendi Lawrence (458 yards, 4 TD) has churned out 263 rushing yards on 50 carries in three games in his absence.
North Carolina is allowing 106.2 yards on the ground this season, good for 14th nationally, so the Tar Heels will not be intimidated by the Tigers' rushing attack.
"I think Clemson runs the ball well and other teams that we've played run the ball well, so that's one of our keys," Withers said. "We have to be able to stop the run first and I think that's the mission as we go forward with this bowl game."
One thing that sets this Missouri spread apart is quarterback James Franklin's dual ability to strike through the air and on the ground. The sophomore has completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 2,733 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while also rolling up 839 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground.
Those are solid numbers for a young man following in a quarterback lineage that includes NFL players Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert.
"He's really matured," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "He's been through a lot. He's had a couple of signature come-from-behind wins, very unusual for a first-year starting quarterback to be put in those situations. He's doing a lot of good things. Still, with him, it's the consistency of every play, through the entire football game, especially with all we ask our quarterbacks to do."
Missouri will present the final challenge for the Butch Davis era in Chapel Hill. Once the game clock winds down in Shreveport around 7:30pm local time, this coaching staff and the seniors will go their separate ways, while the underclassmen will prepare to welcome Fedora's new staff to the Kenan Football Center in the coming weeks.
"I think this means a lot, especially to our seniors for them to go out with a win," Highsmith said. "And for us to finish 8-5 like we have in the previous [three] years. I think it's a big game for Coach Withers and our coaching staff. Unfortunately, they'll all be leaving, so just to finish on a good note for those guys."
An Independence Bowl victory would give UNC its 32nd win over the past four seasons, the most since the Tar Heels won 36 games from 1994-97.