UNC's seventh victory of the season was enough for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to extend an invitation to the heels for its Dec. 31 prime time game. The heels will play a team from the Southeastern Confernece at 7:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve.
Here is a look at the good and the bad from UNC's victory:
Ronald Curry – Curry had another solid game and looked very sharp on most tosses. He completed eight of 14 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown and ran the ball six times for 42 yards. Curry has come a long way since the early struggles of the season and is now a very capable quarterback. His elusiveness and scrambling ability will be missed next year.
Willie Parker – Parker's quickness hitting holes was impressive. He ran the ball 13 times for 82 yards and scored a touchdown. He runs with excellent balance and will hit potential tacklers. With Parker, Andre Williams and Jacque Lewis, the Heels have three different but capable backs for the next two years.
Offensive line – The line did a solid job after three games in which they struggled quite a bit. Yes, the Heels gobbled up 192 yards against Duke but had nearly 20 runs that went for one yard or less and it was Duke after all. On Saturday they blocked for 162 yards on 32 attempts for an average of five yards per carry. Senior center Adam Metts was the anchor of the line, both by example and as a leader. Metts, who is undersized, still battled hard and got results. He also did an excellent job of calling signals and changing blocking schemes.
David Thornton – What a year for the former walk-on. Thornton, who is a very nice young man clearly enjoying his senior season, was UNC's most consistent defensive player all season and one could make an argument that he was the team's defensive MVP. He was over or near double-digit tackles every week, including 11 on Saturday, and delivered numerous punishing blows. Congrats to a young man worthy of getting a shot in the Sunday league next year.
Julius Peppers - Peppers was terrific all day. He was chasing SMU's QB around and making tackles on the other end of the field. He also capped off his career with a sack, giving him 30.5 in his three seasons. Despite being constantly held Peppers never complained and kept going at it on every play. He will be a great pro and will continue to be an excellent role model.
Dexter Reid – UNC's best defensive back had another excellent day. He was in on 10 tackles and made some nice break ups in the secondary.
Anthony Perkins – More kudos to a young man that overcame major knee surgery to get back into action sooner than expected. His return to defensive tackle was timely as it was when Will Chapman went down with a season-ending knee injury. Perkins, a senior, will enjoy the bowl as much as any Heel.
John Bunting – Bunting's leadership is why the Heels reached the postseason. Without it coming from him at the top, the players, especially the seniors, may not have responded as they did. Bunting hired a terrific staff and trusted them by designating responsibility as many excellent leaders do. After one year, Bunting clearly he has the intangibles to build a consistent winner at UNC.
Fans – The 45,500 fans that showed up were terrific. They made noise at the right time and were genuinely interested in the game. They helped give the team a lift, something many of the players acknowledged after the game.
Band – Finally, the band appears to be getting it. They played snippets from "Another Carolina Victory" after first downs and good plays. They actually sounded more like a traditional big time college football band. However, the song "Take on Me" by A-ha should be reserved for basketball games only, where it makes sense and ads to the atmosphere. It isn't a football song.
Bowl game – UNC is headed to a bowl game for the first time since a 20-13 win over San Diego State in the 1998 Las Vegas Bowl. It will be Carolina's 24th bowl appearance ever, and with a win UNC could even its all-time record at 12-12.
Penalties – Carolina had a few drives headed toward scores stalled because of penalties.
On their first possession, the Heels were flagged for holding on third-and-two making it third-and-12 and stalling the drive. UNC couldn't overcome a false start on Darian Durant's first series and on Carolina's drive that extended a 16-10 lead to 19-10, it was flagged twice inside the 10-yard line. First on second-and-goal from the nine (false start) and after moving the ball to the four the Heels were caught holding, pushing the ball back to the 14. UNC eventually had to settle for three points. A TD would have delivered the knockout punch.
For the game the Tar Heels had nine penalties for 79 yards. This area needs to improve for the bowl game or Carolina will finish the year at 7-6.
3-and-out - SMU dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for 33:56 to UNC's 26:04. The Ponies had the ball for an amazing 19:56 in the first half to Carolina's 10:04. The reason SMU had the ball longer, especially in the first half was that on Carolina's last five possessions of the half they scored on the first play and then went three-and-out four straight times. UNC's first series of the game lasted 5:07, more than half the time it had the ball the rest of the half. SMU had one more first down (18) than the Heels for the game.
No Picks – Incredibly, Carolina's cornerbacks went an entire season without intercepting a pass, even with a 12th game added to the slate they couldn't pick of a pass. The secondary as a whole had just two interceptions. The team, which had seven, got three from Peppers and two from linebacker Quincy Monk. Had the DB's picked off a few more passes the Heels could have won a couple more games.
Turnovers - The Heels turned the ball over three times, once an interception in the end zone after a nice drive and the other a fumbled kickoff to start the second half that led to an easy TD for the Mustangs. Essentially, that was a 14-point turnaround. It was at least a 10-point swing.
PAT streak – Jeff Reed's PAT streak ended at 66 after missing an extra point with 55 seconds left in the third quarter. What makes this particularly difficult for the team and fans is that the attempt was from 15 yards further out after the first ever "Altered stride" penalty call this scribe has ever heard was levied on Parker's two-yard touchdown run.
The Tar Heels will face a team from the SEC on Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. It will be UNC's first trip to the Peach Bowl since the 1992 team defeated Mississippi State on Jan. 2, 1993. Interestingly, UNC opens next season in Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, so this game will help them in that respect.
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.