A win over Missouri in Monday afternoon's Advocare V100 Independence Bowl in Shreveport (La.) has the potential to ignite an explosion of positive energy for the Tar Heel program that could really be useful at this juncture in the program's history, as UNC awaits word on the sanctions they'll be receiving from the NCAA in the coming weeks.
By now everyone knows about the themes of winning in Shreveport for the outgoing UNC seniors and coaches, but there's also the critical opportunity to gain momentum heading into offseason conditioning by winning the school's second straight bowl game.
"I think the team morale will be high coming off a win going into the next season with the new coach. Everything will be new, so we'll be pretty fresh and excited for next season, and hopefully build on what we did this year," said sophomore defensive end Kareem Martin.
It's no secret that last year's returning Tar Heels benefitted greatly in the momentum department after UNC knocked off Tennessee in the Music City Bowl in Nashville.
That 2010 UNC squad dealt with every type of adversity imaginable, from teammate departures to coach departures to injuries.
But beating the Volunteers last year ushered in a wave of positive energy that the returning UNC players rode through the rugged winter months of weight lifting and running leading into the spring season.
This year's team has faced almost as much scrutiny and adversity as the 2010 team coming off Butch Davis's preseason termination and injuries taking down several key players.
A win today over Missouri can certainly have a similar positive effect for this year's returning Tar Heels as they get ready for the spring semester and the conditioning program to come in January after they return to Chapel Hill.
"We carried a ton of momentum into the offseason off that Tennessee win," said sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner. "I think its huge to get a win in your last game, just from the whole standpoint that you're going to have to work as hard as possible in the offseason to get back to that point."
"We want to finish off this season with a win under our belts going into the offseason, feeling good about that we finished off with a win and not a loss against Missouri. We just really want to finish off with a win to be prepared for the new change," said redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard.
Even those guys playing for the last time as Tar Heels on Monday acknowledge the significance of getting a win for team morale and establishing some momentum for 2012 and beyond.
"I definitely want to go out on a great note, and I definitely think this win would transition over to the next season and get the younger guys ready for the next challenges that lie ahead. It means a lot," said senior defensive lineman Quinton Coples.
Without question the 'gaining momentum for 2012' factor is a compelling storyline heading into Monday afternoon's ballgame, but there's also the lightly-mentioned factor that North Carolina is playing a Big 12 Conference opponent who's not exactly chopped liver.
"They (Missouri) have a lot of All-Big 12 players, and we're really just excited for the opportunity to play somebody outside our conference and we're looking forward to the opportunity," said Renner.
Although Missouri struggled early in the season and needed three straight wins down the stretch to qualify for the Independence Bowl, they played the likes of Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Baylor, who featured some of the most prolific offenses in the country this fall.
They lost by just a touchdown to 10-2 Kansas State, who is playing in the Cotton Bowl.
They lost by just a field goal to a 9-3 Baylor team that featured the Heisman Trophy winner.
"They're a real good team. The only losses they took were from real good teams, so I feel like this will be one of the best bowl teams we've faced since I've been here," said senior running back Ryan Houston of Missouri.
"We couldn't go into it (this game) like, 'This is a bowl game where we're not facing anybody good,'" Houston continued.
Missouri's program is playing in its seventh straight bowl game, and to top it all, they're about to head to the Southeastern Conference.
Just four years ago Missouri produced an undefeated regular season, and they haven't had a losing season under longtime head coach Gary Pinkel since 2004.
We're not bringing all this up to hype Missouri as some juggernaut that UNC has absolutely no shot of beating.
It's more to illustrate the point that based on their prior history and the conference they play in, the Tigers are a heavy favorite for this game pretty much everywhere in the country but in North Carolina.
Most pundits throughout the Midwest and Heartland probably aren't giving the Tar Heels much if any chance to win based almost solely on Missouri's status as a strong program in a power conference, about to enter an even more powerful conference.
They don't have to know much about UNC to see that 7-5 record, and they'll take a 7-5 Missouri team over a 7-5 UNC team any day of the year knowing who Missouri has had to play during the regular season.
But if Carolina could find a way to bring it all together and beat the Tigers Monday on ESPN in what's the only college football game the day after Christmas, it would send a message nationally that UNC football is not to be taken lightly, no matter the situation.
A win would give the Tar Heels a significant gain in the all-important national respect category, and it can help immediately on the recruiting trail with less than 40 days remaining before National Signing Day.
Recruits will be watching today's game, make no mistake, and in today's 'What have you done for me lately?' world, a win over Missouri would give North Carolina football something to hold its head up about as the program prepares for the transition to Larry Fedora.
Recruits aren't going to pick UNC strictly because of winning the Independence Bowl, but if things go horribly bad against Missouri and the team doesn't compete, it could certainly send a negative message and make a kid think of the reasons why not to become a Tar Heel.
"I think it would be huge (to get the win)," Renner said. "I think it's going to be huge for us to go out and play a good game and hopefully get a win."
"Missouri is a real good team. Their offense is dynamic and their defense is big and fast. It's going to be a really tough game. It's going to be a real good game to watch," added Houston.
Beating Missouri would also help raise the Atlantic Coast Conference's profile at a time when the league is getting criticized by some for Virginia Tech making the BCS over Boise State and others even after getting crushed in the league title game.
"We're playing a big-time opponent. It could really boost the ACC nationwide to get a win," said Martin.