The spin has been that North Carolina is a team that started slow and finished strong, while Auburn started strong and finished weak.
That description is misleading.
North Carolina's 0-3 start came at the hands of Oklahoma, Maryland, and Texas. Whether those games were played later in season might not have mattered greatly. A lot of teams would have finished 0-3 against that schedule, especially since all three games came on the road.
Auburn dropped an early season game at Syracuse, 31-14, in a contest marked by five Auburn turnovers and an unstoppable Orangeman rushing attack that accounted for 226 yards. The Tigers then went on a four-game win streak, highlighted by an upset of then #1-ranked Florida, 23-20. In that stretch, Auburn won squeakers over Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Louisiana Tech [an overtime win] by an average margin of only 3.3 points per game.
The lone win during the final four games by the Tigers came against the Georgia Bulldogs on November 10, 2001, then ranked 19th in the nation.
North Carolina, after their mid-season run of five consecutive wins, including impressive victories over Florida State and Clemson, closed the final four games 2-2.
What is similar about these teams is that both of them were capable of pulling off big wins against favored opponents, but also capable of losing to teams they were capable of defeating. In North Carolina's case, the loss to Wake Forest took some of the luster off the great wins over FSU and Clemson.
For Auburn, all of their losses down the stretch -- Arkansas, Alabama, and LSU -- came against teams they were capable of beating. To make matters worse, none of those games were even close contests. The average margin of defeat in those contests was over 20 points per game.
Defensive coordinator John Lovett attributes the up and down nature of the Tigers to the presence of only eleven seniors and "a rash of injuries," that kept the 2001 Tigers from ever developing team chemistry.
North Carolina, on the other hand, was under a new coaching staff attempting to instill a new attitude. Before this team could win, they had to believe they could win. Perhaps the five-game win streak instilled a too-confident attitude by the Tar Heels, and perhaps the late season losses to Georgia Tech and Wake Forest brought them back down to earth.
As Ken Browning said at Saturday's press conference, the two teams do have share some similarities. "Either offense has done a good job of not turning the ball over, and defenses good enough to keep them in ball games, and to really win big ball games. I think that will be a big key coming into this game."
Perhaps the real similarity between the two was that both teams, when faced with adversity, did not have a history together of facing adversity during a game and being able to overcome that adversity and still win the game. When Arkansas began to pound the Tigers, they could not stop the bleeding. When Wake Forest began to mount their second-half comeback against the Tar Heels, they weren't able to stem the tide of the Deacon attack.