Many thought the season was over before it even began, but the Tar Heels proved otherwise, becoming bowl eligible despite a roster decimated by injuries and suspensions from a two-pronged NCAA investigation. North Carolina was ranked No. 18 in the preseason Associated Press bowl, but fell out of contention for the Coastal Division after a total of 14 players were lost for at least one game and seven were out for the entire season. Standout defensive tackle Marvin Austin, a projected first-round draft pick at the time, was dismissed from the team, and an 0-2 start had the situation looking bleak. UNC responded with a four-game winning streak that put it in contention to win the division. The obstacles kept coming, though, as tight end Zack Pianalto, the team’s leading receiver, suffered a season-ending broken fibula, and Johnny White, the team’s leading rusher, was lost with a broken clavicle. The season was highlighted by performances from players who might not otherwise have had the chance, like White, and his backup, Anthony Elzy. One thing UNC could not overcome, though, was NC State, as the Tar Heels lost for the fourth straight time to coach Tom O’Brien.
Offensive MVP: Quarterback T.J. Yates. He was one of the most improved players in the conference this year, and his leadership and poise were major reasons the program didn’t suffer on the field as much as it did off of it. Yates ranks second in the league in passing yards, pass efficiency and total offense. He also led the league with a 67.6 percent completion rate. Yates finished the regular season completing 259 of 383 attempts for 3,184 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: Defensive tackle Quinton Coples. He is the only defensive tackle in the league in the top 10 in both sacks (8.5) and tackles for losses (14.0). He also ranks fourth on the team with 53 tackles and has 10 quarterback pressures.
Turning point: The 17-13 win at Rutgers on Sept. 25 gave the Tar Heels the confidence they needed to know they could win, and it started a four-game winning streak that essentially ensured the program of its third straight bowl appearance. Heading into the game, UNC was ravaged by suspensions and unsure of itself after an 0-2 start.
What’s next: The Tar Heels will face Tennessee in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. It’s the third straight bowl appearance under coach Butch Davis, but his future remains uncertain as the NCAA has yet to impose any sanctions for the university’s academic violations and improper dealings with agents and athletes receiving impermissible benefits. UNC officials so far have voiced their support for Davis.