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December 25, 2010Ten years of mediocrity made Carolina's appearances in back-to-back bowl games in 2008 and 2009 more important than winning those games.
A victory in either one would have been preferable, but getting there provided an example of the progress that Butch Davis and his staff could sell to recruits.
"We were satisfied to get to a bowl because we hadn't been there in so long," senior running back Anthony Elzy said.
This year, the Tar Heels need a victory. Another loss would not brand this season a failure, given all the controversy and adversity surrounding the program.
Nevertheless, a victory against a Southeastern Conference team, in its home state, would generate tremendous confidence and momentum for UNC heading into an important off-season.
A victory would also help to quiet those who question Butch Davis' coaching ability.
Adversity started for this team before the season began.
UNC lost three of its best players when they were ruled permanently ineligible for taking improper gifts and money from agents. Later, several players were suspended for the season because of academic infractions and eventually two more lost their eligibility permanently. There have been key injuries as well, such the loss of a starting running back, starting lineman and starting linebacker.
"We want to end on a positive note," Davis said. "We want to win this bowl game. As much as it is a reward and fun for the kids, you want to use it as a springboard into next year and spring practice."
Opposing coaches use have been using scare tactics to hammer UNC in recruiting, citing possible sanctions from the NCAA.
One counter to this kind of recruiting is what this team has done to this point.
"In 37 years of coaching," Davis said, "I don't know that I've ever been around a group of kids who have been as resilient, as hard-working, as willing to buy into doing whatever it was going to take, sacrifices they were going to have to make, the ability to block out distractions, to focus on the things they could control and play and compete as hard as they could.
"These kids, they trusted us. They believed in what the coaches were telling them. They didn't allow anyone to wallow in self-pity and what could have been, should have been or might have been."
Davis and his staff had to go three deep at some positions to get players on the field, especially on special teams and in the secondary.
Davis has clearly made a difference in a program that suffered after Mack Brown left for Texas in 1997. The players' outlook has obviously changed. The Tar Heels no longer find ways to lose; now they invent different ways to win.
They have done so while walking a razor-thin line between winning and losing. This team went 5-1 in games decided by five points or less.
"When you build a program, you have to assume there are going to be a certain amount of games that are going to be very, very close," Davis said. "[Success] is built within the program as kids learn what it takes to win football games."
There were a significant number of kids this season who probably did not expect to play but were called on to do so. Their time to play arrived early and, for the most part, they have responded well.
"For this team to step up and do things that nobody thought we would ever do is remarkable," senior cornerback Kendric Burney said.
Now the Tar Heels will have one more opportunity to add to those accomplishments.