North Carolina season review

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Overview: The Tar Heels began the preseason as media darlings, with coach Butch Davis garnering the spotlight at the ACC football kickoff, where his team was picked to finish second in the division behind Virginia Tech. Until mid-November, when North Carolina underperformed in a 17-15 loss to Maryland, the Tar Heels had a chance to live up to the hype and play for the ACC title.

One of the most impressive wins of the season was UNC's 28-24 win at Miami with backup quarterback Cam Sexton leading the team for the first time since starter T.J. Yates was injured. That win sparked a three-game winning streak, and the Tar Heels won five of their first six games without Yates. It was also an impressive season considering UNC lost its top playmaker, Brandon Tate, who suffered a torn ACL and MCL in mid-October, and leading tackler Mark Paschal had a spine injury that ended his career. Although UNC missed its shot at the ACC title, Davis still turned the program around, flipping his 2007 record of 4-8 to 8-4 this season.

Offensive MVP: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. He set school records for most receiving yards in a season (1,005) and career (2,623). Nicks also tied the single-season record with nine touchdown receptions and was named first-team All-ACC. He enters the Meineke Car Care Bowl needing just four receptions to tie the school's all-time mark for catches.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Mark Paschal. The unsung hero, Paschal started 11 games this year before suffering the spine injury against NC State. He finished the season with 103 tackles, ranking fourth in the league in tackles per game. He also had 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Paschal played in 47 consecutive games until the injury.

Turning point: Regardless of how Rutgers' season went, UNC's win on the road against the Scarlet Knights was a sign the program had taken another step under Butch Davis. The Tar Heels had lost 20 straight outside the state of North Carolina, and had a tendency to lose their first big game of the season. UNC had played poorly against unheralded McNeese State in the season opener, and answered a lot of questions with its convincing 44-12 win at Rutgers.

What's next: UNC will look to beat another Big East team when it faces West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Next year, the challenge will be to stay focused when the team reaches bowl eligibility and finish the season strong.