With the kickoff for the Franklin American Mortgage Company Music City Bowl in Nashville just a day away, the Tennessee Volunteers (6-6, 3-5 SEC) and the North Carolina Tar Heels (7-5, 4-4 ACC) are making final preparations for the game that nearly never happened.
Scheduled to play a home-and-away series in 2011 and 2012, Tennessee abruptly canceled the series a few months ago, much to the displeasure of Vol and Tar Heel fans alike.
Strangely enough, after Tennessee Athletic Director Mike Hamilton paid Carolina a $750,000 buyout to scratch the series, it was Hamilton who lobbied for the Vols to line up against the Tar Heels in the Music City Bowl.
The two teams have not met on the gridiron in 49 years, but that drought will come to an end Thursday night in Nashville, at Titans Stadium. The Vols hold the edge in the all-time series, 20-10-1.
The season started with high hopes for the Tar Heels and not-so-high hopes for the Vols. But as the 2010 football season nears its end and despite their records, these two teams seem headed in opposite directions.
The Heels were marred in a scandal that left them with several key players absent from the field as the season began against LSU. All in all, 14 players have missed at least one game and seven missed the entire season.
To make matters worse for Carolina, their leading rusher Johnny White went down with a broken collar bone, linebacker Bruce Carter tore his ACL, Alan Pelc is out with a shoulder injury and now White's replacement, Anthony Elzy, has been declared academically ineligible for the bowl game.
In many ways, Carolina head coach Butch Davis probably can't wait for this season to finally come to an end. Davis' future with Carolina remains somewhat unsettled, as he heads into Music City looking to close out the 2010 season on a winning note.
The Vols entered the season with their third head coach in as many years, counting on Derek Dooley to once again lead the storied program back to SEC prosperity. Vol fans knew coming into the season that Dooley had his work cut out for him with a very young team with little to no depth whatsoever.
Dooley once quipped, "We don't have a depth chart, we just have a chart." The 6-6 record has Volnation optimistic towards the future, as the once hapless 2-6 Vols turned the corner in November and are riding a four-game winning streak into the SEC-ACC contest.
Tennessee seems to have found the foundation for rebuilding their proud traditional program in a solid young quarterback named Tyler Bray. The true freshman has gone undefeated in his first four career starts and was named SEC freshman of the week in three of those four weeks.
The Vols need the win to secure a winning season for Coach Dooley in his inaugural SEC season. Seven wins would also equal last year's team that went 7-6 under Lane Kiffin, but lost in embarrassing fashion to Virginia Tech in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.
More than anything, a win for Tennessee would give them momentum as the recruiting season draws near to a close and the focus shifts to the spring and the 2011 campaign.
"We are certainly excited about the invitation, and I know our players are looking forward to the opportunity to compete against a great opponent," Dooley said, "This will be the fourth stadium that we play in in the state of Tennessee this year, and the support we've had has been phenomenal. I know our fans will be there in full force in Nashville."
The Vols have won 15 straight games in the city of Nashville dating back to 1984, but don't expect this one to be a Tennessee Waltz. But if Tennessee can extend the streak to 16 in the state's capital, Dooley's Vols and Big Orange Country will clearly have something to build on heading into 2011.
So what do you say, let's dance to Rocky Top!
Vol's Bowl Game Notes
This will be Tennessee's first-ever appearance in the Music City Bowl. It will mark the Vol's 49th all-time bowl appearance, as they hold a record of 25-23 in bowl games.
The 49 bowl games ranks second in college football to Alabama's 57.
The Vol's 25 bowl game victories ranks fourth nationally and second all-time in the SEC to Bama's 31.
The match up with North Carolina will be the first such meeting between the two programs in a bowl game.