Back in the Bowl Business

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's fan base has expressed its disapproval with the Tar Heels being relegated to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, but that resentment is just another indication of how high Butch Davis has elevated this program in two short years on the job.

North Carolina (8-4) – who will face West Virginia for only the second time ever – is four years removed from its last bowl appearance, and seven years removed from its last bowl victory, but when Clemson jumped Florida State and UNC for the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., Tar Heel fans voiced their displeasure in the ACC bowl structure. After all, the Tigers posted a 7-5 record with two wins over Football Championship Subdivision opponents (formerly Div. I-AA).

But the most telling detail of the past week was that the luster of earning a bowl bid had long since worn off. In 2001, North Carolina needed a victory over Duke on Nov. 17 to sew up a trip to the postseason, and in 2004, a win in Durham on Nov. 20 clinched the Continental Tire Bowl for the Tar Heels. This season, a bowl bid was all but secured on Oct. 25th with a win over then-No. 23 Boston College.

Expectations have risen in Chapel Hill – quickly. But when Davis met with reporters on Monday morning, his team's bowl destination was a non-issue for the second-year head coach.

"We didn't get to go anywhere last year, so I don't know, to be honest with you, how all the things work out with the bowls," said Davis, who also pointed to the positives that Charlotte presented with regard to instate recruiting and more family interaction. "But I think one of the things that the ACC got right is the fact that they're able to place as many of the teams within their conference and making sure that everybody gets a place to go…

"We had a chance to win the ACC and to go to Tampa and to play for an opportunity to go [to a BCS game], and that's what you want – you want to control your own destiny."

Starting quarterback T.J. Yates admitted to being a little surprised at ending up in Charlotte, but the thrill of playing in the postseason supersedes any potential disappointment with the selection.

"Everybody was hoping for the best and everything, but just to have this [chance] to actually play a bowl game, from last year to this year, is a great opportunity," Yates said.

But for a program that will start just seven seniors in Charlotte on Dec. 27, taking the first step to the postseason is essentially a requirement to set the table for a future run at a BCS bowl appearance. The goal in 2007 was to compete for an ACC Championship and to play in meaningful ball games, something North Carolina hasn't done in a long time. The Tar Heels achieved those desired results, as evidenced by their Coastal Division lead entering the Nov. 15 showdown with Maryland in College Park.

"There were a lot of things that we were able to accomplish the year," Davis said. "And going to a bowl game is certainly one of those steps along the journey of trying to build a program. As I said 20 or so months ago, it's not going to happen overnight. There's no instant formula; you don't snap your fingers and just instantly have everything that you want."

That road back to respectability was loaded with speed bumps in the form of injuries this fall. North Carolina's injury report for the season finale against Duke listed eight scholarship players out of commission, and that did not include Yates, who missed over half of the season due to a broken ankle suffered against Virginia Tech on Sept. 20.

"Very few teams lose their starting quarterback for seven weeks and still end up winning eight games," Davis said.

In addition to the small senior class, the Tar Heel depth chart boasts 25 underclassmen, including a defense led by sophomores LB Bruce Carter, LB Quan Sturdivant, CB Kendric Burney, S Deunta Williams and DT Marvin Austin. Having an additional 15 practices prior to the bowl game serves as an early Christmas present for a team still developing with each passing learning opportunity.

"It gives some of the younger kids an opportunity to continue to practice," Davis said. "There's the possibility that we'll make some tweaks and changes with the personnel and do some experimentation to get a jumpstart on spring practice with some kids that might not necessarily play in the game… Now that we don't have to worry about the season and bowls hanging in the balance, we make take a half dozen kids and try [them] at different positions."

With exams ending on Friday, the Tar Heels will return to the practice field on Saturday in preparation for the 26th bowl appearance in school history. North Carolina is 12-13 all-time in bowl games and is 6-3 since 1990.

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