Gary Pinkel's Tigers used a strong second half in 2011 to earn postseason consideration, as they closed the year with three straight wins to finish up at 7-5 overall. Missouri struggled at times in the Big 12 though, finishing in the middle of the league standings at 5-4.
Still, Pinkel got his team into the postseason once again, as this marks Missouri's seventh straight bowl appearance, the longest postseason streak in school history. In all, this game is the 29th bowl appearance for Missouri all-time, with a postseason record of 12-16. The team has split its last six bowl games, but has lost its last two, including last year's 27-24 nail-biter to Iowa in the Insight Bowl.
Pinkel is excited for another postseason opportunity.
"We are thankful to a lot of people to be in this position -- we talked about eight bowls in nine years and seven in a row -- it would not be wise to take going to bowl games for granted. This was a very difficult season and my players fought and battled to put us in this position. Now we've won three in a row and we are going to play a really good football team. It���s going to be important for us to play our best football game. I'm excited about it, excited for our team and players and we are looking forward to the opportunity."
There were a lot of question marks heading into 2011 for North Carolina, as the school replaced Butch Davis prior to the season, leaving the team in the hands of interim coach Everett Withers. Although UNC finished at 7-5 this season, the school made the move to replace Withers with former Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora. Still, the Tar Heels will be under Withers' guidance in this bowl game, a reward for his hard work this season.
"I especially want to thank Coach Withers, who did an outstanding job in leading the football program this year," Cunningham added. "Everett is an excellent football coach and a first-class individual. He and his staff provided exemplary leadership under trying circumstances and I am glad they were rewarded with an opportunity to play in a bowl game," said UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham.
After opening the season strong, UNC faltered down the stretch with losses in four of its last six games. Still, this marks North Carolina's fourth straight bowl appearance and 29th in school history. The Tar Heels are 13-15 in the postseason all-time.
These two schools are meeting for just the third time. Missouri won the two previous meetings, 27-14 in 1973 and 24-3 in 1976.
The Tigers are a dangerous offensive team that is fueled by a dominant ground game. Missouri led the Big 12 and ranked 11th nationally in rushing this season with 235.7 yards per game. Sophomore tailback Henry Josey emerged as one of the best young backs in the country, averaging 116.8 yards per game on a hefty 8.1 yards per carry. Josey amassed 1,168 yards on the season and scored nine touchdowns. The ground attack was made more potent with the addition of sophomore signal-caller James Franklin, who rushed for 839 yards this year and a team-high 13 TDs.
The passing game was equally effective for Missouri, churning out 236.7 yards per game. The dual-threat Franklin finished the year with a 141.24 passer rating, completing 63.2 percent of his throws, for 2,733 yards and 20 TDs.
The top target downfield for Missouri this season was wideout T.J. Moe, who hauled in 54 passes, for 649 yards and four TDs.
The Missouri defense finished second in the Big 12 in total yards allowed at 382.3 yards per game, but that was only good for middle of the pack on a national scale (61st). The team yielded 135.0 yards per game rushing in 2011, but did struggle at times against the pass (247.3 ypg).
The strength of the Tiger defense is in the middle, with a strong set of linebackers. Sophomore Andrew Wilson burst on the scene this season to set the tone on defense, finishing with a team-high 89 tackles. Fellow LBs Luke Lambert and Zaviar Gooden followed with 74 stops apiece. Lambert led the team with 11.5 TFLs, Senior rush end Jacquies Smith (34 tackles) spearheaded the attack up front, with 9.0 TFLs and 5.0 sacks.
The Tar Heels were led this season by a balanced offensive attack that churned out nearly 400 yards per game. The ground game generated 147.4 yards per game, highlighted by freshman sensation Giovani Bernard, who led all freshmen nationally with 101.8 yards per game. He also tied for the ACC lead with 14 touchdowns.
Bernard's ability to move the chains on the ground made quarterback Bryn Renner's job a little easier under center. The sophomore signal-caller completed 68.8 percent of his passes, for 2,769 yards and 23 TDs. It certainly helped having the ACC's top receiver on the outside in the form of senior Dwight Jones, who led the conference with 79 receptions, for 1,119 yards and 11 TDs. Jones was briefly suspended from the bowl game by the NCAA for a violation regarding using his likeness on a flier promoting a party, but the governing body reinstated the extremely gifted receiver to finish out his collegiate career.
The North Carolina defense had some trouble with consistency this season. The team did a nice job for the most part against the run (106.2 ypg), but was sometimes gashed by opposing passing games (246.8 ypg).
Still, this unit possesses All-American talent in the form of a couple of NFL prospects. Senior LB Zach Brown definitely enhanced his draft status with a strong season, leading the Tar Heels in tackles (91), with 11.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. Up front the player to watch is 6-6, 290-pound end Quinton Coples. Already considered one of the premier down linemen in the nation coming into 2011, Coples did little to hurt his future, finishing the season with 51 tackles, 13.0 TFLs and 7.5 sacks.