The Music City Bowl is only a few days away, scheduled to kick off Dec. 30 at 6:40 PM ET in Nashville.
The matchup features two big-name programs that endured seasons not exactly worthy of big-time headlines. And yet, though strife, both have battled valiantly enough to earn a place in college football’s postseason.
And because of that, I am forced to provide you with some info on Thursday’s game between North Carolina and Tennessee:
Can We Get a Bowl Win, Butch?
We can all agree that Butch Davis, despite fielding NFL-caliber talent, has largely underachieved during his four seasons in Chapel Hill. He is 27-23 at North Carolina, including 0-2 in bowl contests, and has never won more than eight games in a season.
Despite the Tar Heels' recent habit of capping disappointing seasons with flat bowl performances, prognosticators continue to look at North Carolina as a breakout team, only to have more mediocrity begin the cycle anew.
It’s time Davis and the Heels buck the trend. North Carolina hasn’t won a bowl game since 2001, so beating Tennessee would create a rare wave of offseason momentum that could be key to improvement in 2011.
The Big Mo
Speaking of momentum, the Vols have it right now. Losers of six of their first eight games this season, Tennessee and first-year head coach, Derek Dooley, righted the ship in November, winning four consecutive to end the season and finish an even 6-6.
Considering the team’s early-season woes, which were only exasperated by the strange loss at LSU, making any bowl would have to be considered an incredible accomplishment. But now the Volunteers have a chance to clinch a winning season against a premiere program from the ACC.
And streaking Tennessee may be catching North Carolina at the right time, despite the month layoff for both teams. After winning four of its first six—its two losses came by a combined 12 points—North Carolina lost two of its final three games and three of its last six, with two of those defeats coming by more than two scores.
Excelling With Spare Parts
Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh on Davis and the Heels, who opened the season against LSU with 13 players sidelined due to NCAA violations and permanently lost their two best defensive players and biggest offensive threat for acting as the epicenter of the scandal.
That said, even with no Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn, and Greg Little—three players who are thought to be high NFL draft picks—the Tar Heels performed admirably, particularly on defense.
Without Austin to clog the middle at his defensive tackle position, and Quinn to provide pressure off the edge at defensive end, North Carolina still ranked No. 37 or better nationally in total defense, rush defense, and pass defense.
The Heels stumbled down the stretch, but the season-long adversity has proven beneficial. Now the key will be sustaining the success against a Tennessee offense that ranks No. 74 overall, including No. 100 in rushing offense.
Location, Location, Location
Knoxville is a mere 184 miles from Nashville’s LP Field, site of the Music City Bowl. Chapel Hill is roughly 428 miles away. Unless Heels fans make the trek in force, Monday figures to be a home game for the Volunteers.
And it appears they have. Somewhat.
According to the bowl’s official Web site, the game is sold out, as are all permits for the LP Field parking lots.
Tennessee exhausted its allotment of 16,000 tickets within 24 hours of the school’s acceptance of the bowl’s bid. As for North Carolina, it was given an allotment of 10,000 tickets but was then asked by the Nashville Sports Council to return 4,000 of them because of lagging sales among the fan base for tickets that were in otherwise high demand.
It is unclear whether those remaining tickets were allotted to Tennessee. If so, LP Field could take on a slight resemblance to Neyland Stadium, with in excess of 20,000 Vols fans outnumbering the North Carolina supporters by more than three to one.
Yates vs. Bray
Neither team has received consistent play at quarterback this season, but North Carolina and Tennessee have managed to get by with the services of T.J. Yates and Tyler Bray, respectively.
The senior Yates has battled mediocrity his entire career, but even though his final season hasn’t been overwhelming, it has been solid. He has thrown for 3,184 yards and 18 touchdowns versus eight picks—by far the best ratio of his four seasons.
Yates needs to continue to make good decisions against a Tennessee defense that ranks 81st nationally in pass defense but has intercepted 17 passes, 11-most in the country, four of which have gone back for touchdowns. If he does, he stands an excellent chance of ending a so-so career on a high note.
More than slightly less experienced is the true freshman Bray, who split snaps this season with junior Matt Simms but has since taken off after being handed the reins to the offense in early November.
In his four starts, all Tennessee wins, Bray threw for 1,234 yards, four interceptions, and 12 touchdowns, including five against Memphis.
Bray is still a freshman, however, and North Carolina has as skilled a defense as Tennessee will have faced all season, with the exception of LSU and Alabama. But if he can limit his mistakes, much like he has in his four starts, he has a wonderful chance of outperforming his elder counterpart and giving the Vols a chance at a quality bowl victory.