UNC embraces bowl opportunity

At this time a year ago, North Carolina was an eight-win team with nowhere to go.

This year, the Tar Heels are a six-win team and ecstatic.

UNC is bowl-bound once again after serving a one-year postseason ban because of NCAA sanctions. Not only did the Tar Heels have to overcome an abysmal 1-5 start to the season, but many of the seniors on the roster were freshmen when the NCAA launched its highly publicized investigation into academic misconduct and improper benefits. The sloppy start to the season paled in comparison to the turn their collegiate careers took in the summer of 2010.

“We talked about this going into the last game,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “These guys have overcome a lot. They came in at the beginning of an NCAA investigation and saw it through to the end, and had to accept those sanctions against them. They had three head coaches, two staffs. Some of these guys had five or six position coaches in their careers here. It’s a pretty unique group, so I’m very proud of the way that they held this team together when we were 1-5. I just think they’re very appreciative and really excited about the opportunity.”

North Carolina will face Cincinnati (Dec. 28 at 3:20 p.m. ET on ESPN) in the Belk Bowl, the program’s first bowl game since losing to Missouri in the 2011 Independence Bowl under then-interim coach Everett Withers. This will be UNC's fourth appearance in the Charlotte-based bowl, but the program is looking for its first win there, having lost to Boston College (2004), West Virginia (2008) and Pittsburgh (2009). Few if any gave the Tar Heels a chance to become bowl eligible this year after four straight losses dropped them to 1-5. UNC had to win five of its final six games in order to qualify.

Remarkably, it did.

North Carolina became just the sixth team since the regular season expanded to 12 games in 2006 to start the season 1-5 and make a bowl game. UNC didn’t win its first ACC game of the season until Oct. 26 against Boston College. The 34-10 win over the Eagles was the start of a five-game winning streak punctuated by an 80-20 drubbing of Old Dominion that made UNC bowl-eligible once again.

Fedora said the players felt the pressure mount with each week.

“It’s impossible not to,” Fedora said. “That’s why we started the 1-0 deal and just focusing on trying to be better and trying to be 1-0 each week, not looking at the big picture, but just trying to take some of that pressure off of them. Just focusing one week at a time, one day at a time on being 1-0 and I think it was really good for our football team.”

Playing in the postseason will be, too.