(Note: This article can also be found at my UNC blog at Carolina Tar Heel Blue).
It’s been a while.
North Carolina (8-4, 4-4 ACC) has not won a bowl game since a 2001 victory over the Auburn Tigers in the Peach Bowl, and the Heels' last trip to the Meineke Car Care Bowl didn’t go so well. In 2004, the Tar Heels were handled rather easily by Boston College, 37-24.
In 2008, fans in Chapel Hill have been cheering for the football team with an enthusiasm usually reserved for Roy Williams’ boys over in the Dean Dome.
The end of the season was an obvious disappointment (key losses to Maryland on the road and N.C. State at home), but a bowl win will help put a lot of the late-season memories away for good. It will also help reestablish UNC as a legitimate ACC contender in the years to come.
Although perennial powers Virginia Tech, Miami (FL), and Florida State are all expected to improve significantly in 2009, it appears the Tar Heels are on pace to keep up with them. They are young and, by all accounts, are adding another solid recruiting class next year.
Right now, however, the focus is on Charlotte and the West Virginia Mountaineers (8-4, 5-2 Big East). Heels fans will be ready to talk about 2009 on Sunday, preferably with a bowl win in the rear-view mirror.
West Virginia is also 0-1 in the Meineke Bowl, losing the inaugural matchup in 2002 to Virginia, 48-22. The Mountaineers’ season is something of a mirror image of UNC’s, as they spent much of the year at or near the top of the Big East before collapsing at the end and handing the title to the Cincinnati Bearcats.
Fans of both schools were hoping for an Orange Bowl matchup in Miami, but the late-season swoons have left this as a must-win for second-year North Carolina coach Butch Davis and first-year West Virginia coach Bill Stewart.
If North Carolina is able to pick up a win on Saturday, it will continue the momentum Davis has built, greatly help recruiting (especially in-state and in nearby South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia), and make it at least a little more likely that the school can evolve into a consistent threat to win the ACC.
Davis resisted the advances of several universities (most notably Tennessee) who came calling after disappointing seasons of their own. He has Tar Heel fans hoping that he is truly devoted to staying in Chapel Hill long enough to build a successful football program, so that UNC can one day shed the mantle of being solely a “basketball school.”
There is a unique opportunity with Tommy Bowden “resigning” from Clemson, Phillip Fulmer being fired from Tennessee, and several other major programs having down years in the South and Southeast. One Clemson recruit has already signed on with Davis since the Bowden resignation.
UNC needs to seize this opportunity and take the next small step on the long road back from the bottom tier of the ACC.
Prediction: North Carolina 31, West Virginia 27
Bonus Prediction, made while wearing Carolina Blue-colored glasses: Butch Davis stays in North Carolina at least through the 2012 season, if not for the rest of his career.