North Carolina went out and won its first bowl game since the 2010 season, beating Cincinnati 39-17 in the Belk Bowl. Not only was the win a great finish to the 2013 campaign, but more importantly, it is also a momentum builder for a program set to be one of the favorites in the ACC's Coastal Division.
Yes, the Tar Heels will lose key contributors on both sides of the ball to the NFL. Guys like leading receiver, tight end Eric Ebron, and left tackle James Hurst leaving will be significant blows to the offense. Defensively, Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson on the defensive line, along with Tre Boston and Jabari Price in the secondary will be noticeable losses.
Ebron, Hurst, Martin and Price helped push the Heels from a 1-5 start, to a 6-1 finish, including the win over the Bearcats in Charlotte. However, it was the infusion of youth that helped make North Carolina one of the ACC's hottest teams to finish the 2013 season.
It started at the quarterback position when Marquise Williams took over for an injured Bryn Renner, showcasing the physical skills that opened up the offense.
True freshman running back T.J. Logan got in on the action, transitioning from a kid who did not play in the first four games into a player who became the feature back to end the season. Another freshman, Khris Francis, also made himself a factor later in the year.
Although Ebron was the leading receiver, it was sophomore Quinshad Davis who set the pace for the Tar Heels with receiving touchdowns.
As Ebron heads to the NFL, the Heels return five of the other top six pass-catchers on the season. One of those players is Ryan Switzer, a wide receiver who has made his name on special teams, as CBS Sports' Chip Patterson notes, tying an NCAA record for punt-return touchdowns.
Offensively, in 2014, North Carolina will enter the season with plenty of weapons and, most importantly, a quarterback who got a head start on preparing for the year. Williams going from a change-of-pace player to full-time starter in 2013 means he's ahead of the curve to enter spring ball. Although, there will be an open competition, including currently redshirting freshman Mitch Trubisky.
On the defensive side, Martin and Jackson will be the bodies UNC is working to replace for a unit that finished much stronger than it started the season. Justin Thomason, a sophomore defensive tackle, saw plenty of work during the season and will be tasked with playing a bigger role.
In the back seven for UNC, Brandon Ellerbe used the bowl game to let folks know he's going to be a player for the Tar Heels going forward. Dominique Green, a safety forced into action to start the season, grew up on the field and is a player whom UNC will be looking to as a leader in the secondary.
There is youth all over the North Carolina roster, and as ESPN points out, reinforcements are coming as the Heels boast a strong recruiting effort. 2014, with the talent returning and the strength at the quarterback spot, is looking to be the year many, including NBC Sports' Kevin McGuire, expected UNC to have in 2013.
The Tar Heels will take the bowl win into the offseason and spring ball. More importantly, they will enter spring with an identity, with players ready to make plays instead of simply learning to play big-time football. With the talent returning and the losses that other Coastal teams have to replace, Larry Fedora should be primed to show folks why the Tar Heels hired him in Chapel Hill.