After coming up a point short in last year's Meineke Car Bowl against West Virginia, a win over Pittsburgh in this year's game would be a tremendous boost for the program heading into the spring.
"This program has made a significant amount of strides over the past last of years in a multitude of areas," said UNC head coach Butch Davis. "Certainly the next step is to continue to improve and to win more games than eight. They (Pittsburgh) are a very, very good football team---a nine-win football team---that like ourselves is certainly smarting from the last game of the season, and certainly we'd like to end the season on a positive note and play well."
From an overall standpoint, Davis feels there is plenty of positive momentum with the Tar Heel program at the end of his third season at the helm given the back-to-back bowl games---the first time in more than a decade that's happened---and the first back-to-back eight-win or better seasons since 1996 and 1997.
That, along with the expansion plans for Kenan Stadium and the success they've had in recruiting in past seasons and this year with 2010 offensive linemen, tight ends, and other 'skill' position players, Davis has plenty of optimism for the future.
"Certainly from the performance on the field, from going to bowl games, from recruiting, to stadium expansion---I mean, there's an awful lot of momentum, and it isn't always going to come just instantly," Davis said. "You're not going to just magically make things, and you can't overcome some of the issues that you've got without some growing pains that go along with it. So you have to balance emotionally the ups and downs that go along with the season."
"As I told the team at our banquet, I'm not sure I've been around a football team that has been more challenged than this football team has this season with the number of injuries that transpired prior to the start of the season and the number of kids that left the program last year that were unbelievable impact players," Davis added.
"And then the injuries that we had to deal with during the course of the season, it took an awful lot of character, it took a lot of poise, it took a lot of leadership within that locker room for them to persevere through that," he continued. "We win a game, and then we win another game, get on a roll, play good, go on the road. Winning at Virginia Tech was a big win for this football team and this football program. It gave them a real shot of confidence and they're just trying to continue to build on the positive things."
For Davis and the UNC players, the next step after making back-to-back postseason games is to improve the record and take things to the next level in the win-loss column, and the bottom line is that it's going to be a lot easier for the Tar Heels emotionally to start preparing for spring football---and the 2010 season opener in Atlanta against national powerhouse LSU---if they're coming off a big bowl win instead of another disappointing letdown.
"Absolutely. We definitely need to win this bowl game to kind of jump start us into next year," said quarterback T.J. Yates. "We know we have a very strong opponent the first game of the year, a big game, and this will definitely help us going into the offseason on a positive note."
"From our bowl game to playing on ESPN for the Spring Game, just with our program it's on the up rise," said cornerback Kendric Burney. "Winning this and going into the Spring Game and getting ready for an LSU team is just something special."
"Just getting a win at the end of the season and carrying that momentum into offseason training, carrying it into the spring and have a great spring, then carry it into that first game next season, it would be huge," said running back Ryan Houston.
The good news for the Tar Heels, along with getting 10 practice sessions along with the bowl game, is that the program is much farther ahead with its depth at key positions and its ability to offset potential losses if certain players to leave early for the National Football League.
"There's not nearly as many unknowns (as in the past). I can tell you over last season and this year during recruiting, we are infinitely farther ahead about targeting guys that we know fill fit our culture and our environment, and they are the missing pieces to help us get over that next hump," said Davis.
"There were so many holes to fill in 2007 and 2008---now it's just like anybody that can play, come on, you can help us," he added. "Now we kind of know we need two of these, three of these, one of these, four of these, and some of these guys will have a chance to make a significant contribution in year one, and some of them are going to be the 'heir apparents' to the future of the program."
"I think we're definitely on schedule, moving this program in the right direction. Every year we've gotten better," said Yates. "Even if our record is the same as last year going into the bowl, I think we've gotten a lot better as a football team, just managing different things and playing with adversity and stuff like that.
"I think next year is going to be even better. We're getting better every year as a football team and going into my fourth year and Coach Davis's fourth year, we're heading in the right direction," Yates added.
For Yates and everyone else representing the Tar Heels December 26 in Charlotte, there's no better way to ignite a positive run into the upcoming season than to take care of business and get a victory in the Meineke Bowl.