NCF Nation: Denarius Moore
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 take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Tennessee was 0-for-October earlier this season and staring at a 2-6 record. Granted, the competition got a lot easier, but the Vols rebounded nicely under first-year coach Derek Dooley to earn a trip to the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
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.
Mississippi State running back LaDarius Perkins: Doing a little bit of everything, Perkins rolled up 319 all-purpose yards in Mississippi State’s 31-23 win over Ole Miss to keep the Egg Bowl trophy in Starkville. The redshirt freshman closed the first half with back-to-back touchdown catches of 33 and 36 yards to make it a 21-9 game. He finished with three catches for 140 yards and just missed 100 yards rushing, totaling 98 yards on 13 carries.
Tennessee receiver Denarius Moore: Playing his final game at Neyland Stadium, Moore had seven catches for 205 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown, in the Vols’ 24-14 win over Kentucky. He became the first player in Tennessee history to have two 200-yard receiving games, in either a season or a career. He had 228 receiving yards earlier this season against South Carolina. Moore has nine touchdown catches on the season and is averaging 21.2 yards per catch.
Auburn defensive end Antoine Carter: There’s something to be said for never giving up and playing to the whistle. Carter’s hustle play in the first half to chase down Alabama running back Mark Ingram from behind and poke the ball loose for a touchback is where Auburn’s comeback ignited. Alabama was already leading 21-0 and well on its way to making it 28-0 when Carter knocked the ball loose from Ingram at the Auburn 19. It was the first sign of life Auburn had shown in the game and a play that kept the Tigers within striking distance to make their improbable comeback in the second half before winning 28-27.
South Carolina’s defense: The Gamecocks allowed a touchdown pass on the fourth play from scrimmage Saturday night and then went the next 58 minutes without allowing another point. They held Clemson to 251 total yards and scored a touchdown of their own when Antonio Allen took an interception back 37 yards in the third quarter. The Gamecocks forced three turnovers in the game and also had three sacks in the 29-7 win, only the third time in school history that they’ve won nine or more games in a season.
Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton: He’s been Mr. Big Play for the Hogs all season, but his 80-yard touchdown catch on the final play of the first half was the play that broke the game open for the Hogs. With only six seconds remaining, Hamilton hauled in a deep pass down the middle when two LSU defenders collided and he was able to get into the end zone with no time showing on the first-half clock. Hamilton also had an 85-yard touchdown catch earlier in the second quarter and finished with three catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns in the 31-23 win over LSU.
Gary Russell, 20, said the only two players he could positively identify were defensive tackle Montori Hughes and receiver Denarius Moore. Russell said six or seven players jumped on him and were kicking and beating him while he lay on the floor after he bumped into Hughes. Russell said Hughes started the fight by pushing him and then punching him in his chest following the inadvertent bump. At that point, Russell said he swung back to defend himself, triggering the brawl that eventually spilled outside and left an off-duty police officer unconscious.
The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Hughes claims he was attacked by Russell from behind, and the Tennessee players in separate meetings have told coach Derek Dooley that's what happened. The police are still investigating and say more charges could be coming. Hughes has yet to be questioned by police or charged with anything, although he hired a lawyer last weekend.
Here's the latest on the situation.
Turning point: Virginia Tech broke a 14-14 tie just before halftime with a Matt Waldron 21-yard field goal as time expired. It looked like the Vols would go into halftime with all the momentum after fighting back from a 14-0 deficit. But with 18 seconds to play in the first half, Tyrod Taylor uncorked a 63-yard pass to Jarrett Boykin down to the Tennessee 4. The game clock ran out on the field, but the play was reviewed, and the officials ruled that Virginia Tech called timeout with two seconds remaining. That left enough time for Waldron to kick the field goal and steal the momentum away from the Vols.
Stat of the game: The Hokies rushed for 230 yards, which was the third time in the past five games that the Vols have given up at least 200 yards on the ground.
Unsung hero: Even though he had the early interception, Tennessee senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton came back and played courageously the rest of the way in his final game.
What it means: The Vols (7-6) were looking to put an exclamation mark on their first season under Lane Kiffin. Instead, they put more of a question mark on a season that was highlighted by quality losses and moral victories. Tennessee played respectably in hard-fought losses to Alabama and Florida, improved significantly on offense after a dismal 2008 season and had a defensive stretch during the middle of the season when it played as well as anybody in the league. But in the end, this season will be remembered more for what Kiffin did and said off the field than anything the Vols accomplished on the field.
Second guessing: What was Tennessee’s coaching staff thinking at the end of the first half? In that situation, there’s no excuse for having the defensive backs in any position where a receiver can get behind them.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
First, there was the news Tuesday that senior Austin Rogers is out for the season with a torn ACL. The latest bit of bad news is that Moore, the Vols' top returning deep threat, is also out for eight to 12 weeks after breaking a bone in his left foot.
More than anything, what this all means is that the freshman receivers the Vols signed, namely Nu'Keese Richardson and Marsalis Teague, had better be ready to play early and often this season.
And if the Vols can't line up and run the ball, they could really be in trouble.
On a positive note, top running back signee Bryce Brown has drawn rave reviews from teammates and from those on the Vols' strength staff. His talent is obvious, but the thing that has really stood out to everybody to this point is his work ethic and maturity.
Sounds like another freshman who'll be heard from early this season.