North Carolina players went into 2012 knowing the postseason was off the table, no matter what they did.
Yet they remained motivated to win as many games as possible, and that inner drive propelled them to the top of the Coastal Division standings and a successful first season under Larry Fedora -- with a few controversial championship rings to boot.
Now, though, everything is different. The wins and losses matter when it comes to ACC titles and BCS appearances. There are postseason games to play for, and that gargantuan fact has served as the main source of motivation headed into the season.
"We couldn’t get Christmas last year. We couldn’t go to a bowl game, which is a college football players’ goal, but this year we get a chance to battle for a title, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to compete," quarterback Bryn Renner said. "Last year we had a great year, but we want to put North Carolina back on the map. That was a stepping stone. We need to get to the ACC title game if we want to do that.”
Defensive end Kareem Martin said last year, "We went on the field every Saturday with the mind-set of winning -- not caring what was going to happen at the end of the season."
This year, with championships and bowl games back on the table?
"It’s boosted the morale, every guy knowing we can go to the ACC championship," Martin said. "The Coastal Division is a tough division, but knowing that we can potentially represent them in the ACC championship, represent the ACC in a bowl game is really big for guys."
Miami was chosen as the preseason favorite to win the Coastal, while North Carolina was selected to finish third. The Tar Heels were also picked to finish third a year ago. But this season, North Carolina received 22 first-place votes, as opposed to two last year. Still, they go into the season as the perceived underdog, and that is just fine with Martin.
"That just makes it better at the end of the day, when we can beat those teams, beat the Miamis and the Virginia Techs," Martin said. "It makes us feel that much better that we’re proving our doubters wrong, because we know what we have. We know we have the talent, the players, and the coaches to go contend and play for a championship."