NASHVILLE - By its own merits, tonight's Music City Bowl is a mediocre bowl game between two teams nowhere near the nation's elite.
In the bigger picture, though, either Tennessee or North Carolina will end a sour season with much-needed momentum.
Which program needs it more is a fair question, though. Both could certainly use it.
"Just getting here is something we can all be very proud of, but winning is really big, too," UT junior tailback Tauren Poole said. "This is a huge opportunity for us. Going into the offseason with a big winning streak, man, that would be great for everybody's confidence.
"We could put ourselves in position to really turn the corner."
Some suggested all summer that the Volunteers (6-6, 3-5 Southeastern Conference) would be lucky to play in any bowl game - even a lower-tier one like this - but try telling that to one of college football's proudest fan bases, even when their team wins just two of its first eight games.
The Tar Heels (7-5, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) weren't initially predicted to spend their holidays in an environment like this, but lengthy absences from several stars due to off-field suspensions or injuries have decimated an experienced, NFL-talent-dripping defense that was supposed to be one of the game's best. But then those issues left many wondering if the Heels, like the Vols, would make any bowl game.
"Our football team has a great deal of respect for Coach Dooley's football team," North Carolina head coach Butch Davis said Wednesday afternoon. "I think that we share an awful lot of things in common. Both teams have gone through some adversity during the course of the season, and certainly the leadership and the character of both programs have shown up to put us in the situation to be able to play this game."
How crazy has North Carolina's season been? Davis said getting to the Music City Bowl after a season that started with championship dreams has been one of his "most gratifying."
And Davis has been doing this for nearly four decades.
"You can reflect back [better] when the season is over and say, 'What might have or could have been,'" Davis said. "But I will tell you that this has probably been, in 37 years of coaching, the most ... I hate saying, 'satisfying,' but it's one of the most gratifying because of how hard this football team worked to put itself in a position to have a successful season, and then to be able to manage the injuries, the suspensions and all the things that this team has gone through.
"That old adage about adversity, a lot of times it reveals the character of the individuals ... I tell you, this football team has been remarkable in that respect."
Dooley said he's been basically amazed by the Heels sustaining "atomic bomb after atomic bomb" this season, but his Vols were impressive in their own right.
Overcoming a 2-6 start under the constant pressure that comes with the Tennessee name is no small feat.
"People can say what they want, but the fact is there's been lots of times where the only people who believed in us was us," outspoken UT senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. "To not quit, to win four straight games just to get to this point, that's something we should never forget. I know I won't."
But here's the bottom line: One team will leave LP Field tonight with much-needed offseason momentum - five consecutive wins, if the Vols prevail - and the other will simply leave with another loss.
"We were sitting there 2-6, and it could have gone either way, and it turned only because those seniors made a commitment to turn it," Dooley said. "It wasn't anything to do with coaching or anything else. It was just our senior class, they committed themselves to finish it out the right way, and they did it, and I'm proud of them for that. But I also hope that they know that their work isn't done. As much as everybody loves a bowl game, ... it's no fun losing a bowl game, because your whole offseason is affected.
"The season's still on, and it would be a little premature to comment about what the legacy is going to be until we see how we compete this week."
UT's seniors said they understand that.
"It's a big thing for us, keeping this winning streak going, and making the young guys go into next season knowing they've got to continue that winning streak," senior receiver Denarius Moore said. "Besides, I would pick 7-6 over 6-7 any day."
Senior tight end Luke Stocker said "everybody around here understands how huge this game is for the future of our program."
"To finish with a five-game winning streak, that would put a ton of momentum into the offseason for guys with their confidence," Stocker said. "As they're working in the offseason, that would be a lot of motivation. Guys feel that hunger and that desire for a championship when you go strong into the offseason, and a five-game winning streak makes the whole thing feel more real to someone than if they were to lose this game."
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739.
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