In any other season, the Tar Heels would be in position to play in a reputable bowl game or even a BCS bowl. Until Miami announced its own self-imposed bowl ban, North Carolina would have been in contention to play in the ACC Championship Game against Florida State.
Unfortunately, this season is unlike any other in North Carolina football history. Despite winning enough games to be bowl eligible, there is no opportunity to win the ACC for the first time since 1980. No Chick-Fil-A Bowl. No Belk Bowl. Not even a return trip to Shreveport, La. and the Independence Bowl. The season concludes on Saturday afternoon with the game against lame duck ACC member Maryland.
Based on this, it sounds tempting to just to mail it in. North Carolina already won the biggest game of its season against N.C. State. The team played very well in a bounce back game on national television against Virginia. What more is left for the Tar Heels to play for?
"It's crucial," head coach Larry Fedora told reporters on Monday. "Our guys understand, first of all, it's the opportunity to get number eight and it's, again, building on the legacy that these seniors want to leave on when a team comes in here to the Tar Pit how hard it is to play. Our guys want to win this football game and if we take care of our business then there is a chance that we will have reached our goal as far as Coastal division champs."
While the Coastal Division title may be out of reach, Saturday is Senior Day in Kenan Stadium and the team desperately wants to send that group out with a win. Not one senior left the program despite the opportunity to do so without being required to sit out one year elsewhere.
"All of them were being recruited by people outside of the program," Fedora said. "They knew that they could [leave] and we were going to do what we did and we didn't change anything. We just did what we said we were going to do and they hung in there."
What Fedora and his team did was value each and every game on the schedule. From Elon to Maryland, each game was looked at as a cherished opportunity to show the country what North Carolina football was capable of despite the burden of a postseason ban. While the coaches and team hope to send the seniors out on the right note Saturday, the Tar Heels are preparing the same way they have all season."
"I don't approach it any different than any other game we've had this year," Fedora said. "We're going into this game and we want to win the game. That's all we want. We want to win the game. We don't care how we do it. Whether it's one point or six points or whatever it is. We just want to score one more point than our opponent."
One of the benefits of a bowl game is the opportunity for 15 extra practices following the regular season. Many teams use the practices not only prepare for the bowl game, but also to evaluate and develop younger players for the future.
North Carolina is not able to use those extra opportunities on the practice field, but Fedora and his staff made sure to cut out some time this fall to observe and evaluate the future of the team. The ‘Heel Bowl' as well as weekly scrimmages gave the reserves the reps necessary to stand out as well as be coached up by the staff.
The Tar Heels lose four seniors on offense and just three on defense. Even if redshirt sophomore running back Gio Bernard does elect to turn pro, there is no doubt North Carolina returns plenty of talent next season. While the bowl ban may be frustrating right now, it will undoubtedly serve as motivation for a 2013 Tar Heel team that looks to be chock-full of talent as well as desperate to taste postseason success.
"I think the biggest thing is we want to get started on next season sooner than we would regularly," quarterback Bryn Renner said. "I think that's going to be good. Probably take a week off and then kind of come back and start hitting the grind again. I think that's something we're looking forward to. We're going to be able to play for the postseason next year and we have a lot of people coming back and I really just looking forward to the chance we have next year."
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