North Carolina is headed to a bowl game for the third straight season, though the Tar Heels could argue they've accomplished more this time just by getting there.
When the Tar Heels face Tennessee in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, they will have a chance to match their record from each of the past two seasons despite the distraction of an ongoing NCAA investigation into the football program. That probe into agent-related benefits and academic misconduct forced 14 players to miss at least one game and seven to miss the entire season.
"It's very rewarding," quarterback T.J. Yates said Friday. "Everybody on this team has extremely high expectations for ourselves and our team. We know we could've done better. ... With all the stuff that happened, this situation is a pretty good one for us and we all kind of realize that."
The bowl game will cap an emotional and volatile season for the Tar Heels (7-5), who looked ready to contend for an Atlantic Coast Conference division title behind a defense that returned nine starters from a unit that ranked among the nation's best the previous year. But that was before the NCAA first visited campus in July, which ultimately led North Carolina to open the season with 13 players out indefinitely due to the probe.
In the weeks that followed, the team often prepared for games uncertain of whether some of the players on that list would be in the lineup by the weekend. In one case, the school even announced shortly before kickoff against Clemson that it was holding out an additional player who was later declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA.
Of the players caught up in the probe, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and defensive end Robert Quinn were regarded as potential NFL first-round draft picks, while receiver Greg Little, safety Deunta Williams and cornerback Kendric Burney all flirted with the idea of entering the NFL draft after last season. Of that group, Austin, Quinn and Little were either ruled permanently ineligible or dismissed from the team and never played this year.
It would be easy for the Tar Heels to have what-if thoughts, especially after they nearly upset LSU in that opener despite the depleted roster and stayed in the ACC Coastal Division race until November. Yates admitted it will be difficult to avoid it in the offseason, while coach Butch Davis said he hasn't allowed himself to do it — yet.
"I'm sure there will come a time when you look back and say, 'Gosh,' with a little bit of sadness — sadness for the kids that didn't get a chance to play, sadness for the guys that did play," Davis said. "But I will tell you I'm probably more pleased and happier with the way the season went than probably most of you could imagine.
"I think whatever tiny amount of time you look back and say what could have been, I look at what did happen and I'm very proud of them."
The Tar Heels will get to experience something a little different on this bowl trip. North Carolina hasn't played a bowl game out of state since reaching the Peach Bowl nine years ago, reaching the Meineke Bowl in Charlotte in 2004, 2008 and 2009. This time, they're heading to Nashville for their first game against the Volunteers since 1961.
The seniors remember the thrill the players had when they finally reached a bowl game two years ago. Tailback Anthony Elzy pointed out the team is still waiting for its first bowl win under Davis after a couple of happy-to-be-here attitudes.
Then again, Williams said, being in this position is a bit of reward by itself.
"I don't think it's the same type of feeling," Williams said. "This year was kind of a more satisfying kind of feeling. I think we have worked so hard just to get here. A lot of guys are feeling real good about that."