North Carolina Tar Heels (7-5) vs. Tennessee Volunteers (6-6)
Dec. 30, 6:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)
North Carolina take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: North Carolina, which began the season ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press preseason poll, had much higher hopes this season, but considering how injuries and suspensions decimated the roster, an appearance in a bowl game is not an accomplishment those within the program take lightly. Carolina is in a bowl game for the third straight season, the school’s longest streak since going to seven straight bowl games from 1992-98. UNC and Tennessee had previously agreed to play in 2011 and 2012, but Tennessee canceled the series.
UNC returned all but two starters on defense and was expected to contend for the ACC title in coach Butch Davis’ fourth season, but the Tar Heels lost 14 players for at least one game and seven for the entire season because of a two-pronged NCAA investigation. UNC started the season with back-to-back losses, but a four-game winning streak revived their bowl hopes.
Backups have played integral roles for Carolina, but veteran quarterback T.J. Yates has been one of the most improved players in the country this year and at the heart of the team’s success. He is No. 2 in the conference in passing efficiency and No. 2 in passing average per game.
Tennessee’s surge here at the end of the season started with Dooley turning the keys of the offense over to true freshman quarterback Tyler Bray, and the cool Californian responded by throwing 12 touchdown passes in his four starts.
The Vols also have one of the better group of receivers in the SEC. Seniors Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones have both had big seasons, but true freshmen Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers have also come on during this winning streak.
All told, Tennessee has 21 first-year players in its two-deep, and at times, had three freshmen playing on the offensive line. The Vols have also been a lot better on defense these past four games and kept teams out of the end zone.
To get to seven wins and finish a game above .500 would be a real accomplishment for this team and would match last season’s 7-6 record -- when it looked like the closest the Vols would get to a bowl game back in October was watching one on television.