Published December 25, 2011
The Tigers and Tar Heels meet on Monday in the Independence Bowl, and both teams have become quite experienced at juggling questions about their long-term future with the upcoming matchup. Players and coaches are adamant the focus will be squarely on the field.
"We're expecting to play our best game," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "And we expect North Carolina to play their best game."
Not that there aren't reasons to be distracted. North Carolina (7-5) is in the midst of a coaching change, while Missouri (7-5) is preparing for its move to the Southeastern Conference after an acrimonious exit from the Big 12.
The Tar Heels endured more than their share of turmoil this season under interim head coach Everett Withers, who took over in July after Butch Davis was fired shortly before preseason camp in the shadow of an NCAA investigation.
Withers was a candidate for the full-time job until last week, when North Carolina announced the hiring of Southern Mississippi coach Larry Fedora. Fedora takes over the program immediately after the bowl game and Withers is headed to Ohio State, where he'll be the defensive coordinator for new coach Urban Meyer.
Withers' time is already divided. He said he spent part of his week making recruiting calls for the Buckeyes before turning his focus back to North Carolina.
He expects his team to handle any extra adversity without issues. The Tar Heels have certainly had plenty of practice.
"This has been an experience for all of us," Withers said. "Each player has done an unbelievable job of holding this together to have the success that we've had the past two years. It's been remarkable. I haven't looked at it as tumultuous. I've looked at it as a life lesson — a journey — that you go through."
Coaching stability isn't a problem at Missouri (7-5), where Pinkel is wrapping up his 11th season with a program-record seventh consecutive bowl appearance. Instead, it's the move to the SEC that's the constant topic of conversation.
"There's no question about it — this is historically a big moment with us playing our last game in the Big 12," Pinkel said. "That's kind of on my shoulders and on our players' shoulders. This game is important for many reasons, but it will be remembered specifically for that reason."
While North Carolina and Missouri share a penchant for off-field issues, they also have similar on-field resumes.
Both are talented teams that have experienced bouts of success and failure. Missouri started the season with a 4-5 record before consecutive wins over Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas earned them the right to go to the Independence Bowl.
Missouri sophomore quarterback James Franklin has thrown for 2,733 yards and 20 touchdowns this season while also rushing for 839 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Tigers' defense has given up just 14 points per game during the recent three-game winning streak.
"It's been kind of an up-and-down year for us, so it'd be nice to end with four (wins) in a row and end our time in the Big 12 the way we want to," receiver T.J. Moe said. "And for the guys who are going to be here next season, it can be a springboard into the SEC."
North Carolina started the season 5-1, but stumbled down the stretch, losing four of the last six to finish with a 3-5 ACC record.
Still, the Tar Heels won their regular-season finale against Duke and have one of the best freshmen running backs in the country in Giovani Bernard.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder from Davie, Fla., rebounded from a torn knee ligament last season to become the program's first 1,000-yard rusher since 1997.
"You see the great running backs, and they're with the great teams," Bernard said. "That's the main thing. Dwight Jones has done a great job catching the ball all year and our offensive line has protected me and Bryn (Renner) amazingly this year. The credit goes out to those guys. I'm following the blocks. A little patience helps."
Renner, a sophomore, led the ACC in passing efficiency and has thrown for 2,769 yards, 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Renner said all of the team's adversity has taken a toll, but also made the Tar Heels resilient. Though disappointed Withers won't be around next season to coach the team, he said the Tar Heels are determined to send everyone out a winner.
"This coaching staff — you can't say enough about the job coach Withers did for us all season," Renner said. "That's really who we're playing for. This staff and this team."
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