WHEN: Dec. 30, 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: LP Field, Nashville.
TV: ESPN (Mark Jones will do play-by-play, with Bob Davie as the analyst).
THE LINE: North Carolina by 2.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: North Carolina 3-5, Tennessee 1-6.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: North Carolina 48th, Tennessee T-62nd.
BCS RANKINGS: Neither team is ranked.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Big Ten.
COACHES: North Carolina - Butch Davis (4-2 in bowls); Tennessee - Derek Dooley (1-0 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Tennessee closed the regular season with a four-game winning streak, but the Volunteers haven't beaten a team with a winning record. This game should let us know whether the Vols have established some momentum as they head into 2011 or if their late-season surge simply was a by-product of a soft schedule.
KEY STATS: Tennessee enters the contest on a four-game winning streak, while North Carolina has dropped two of its past three. Tennessee has given up 14 or fewer points in each of its past four games, and North Carolina ranks 79th nationally in scoring.
North Carolina entered the season with arguably the most talent of any team in the ACC -- particularly on defense -- but NCAA investigations into academic misconduct and improper contact with agents gutted the Tar Heels' roster for much of the season.
Rather than winning an ACC title and earning a trip to the Orange Bowl, North Carolina (7-5) barely finished above .500 and received an invitation to Thursday's Music City Bowl vs. Tennessee (6-6).
Davis refuses to dwell on what might have been.
"I'm probably more pleased and happier with the way this season went than probably most of you could imagine," he said. "In 37 years of coaching, I don't know that I've ever been around a group of kids who have been as resilient, as hard-working, as willing to buy into doing whatever it's going to take."
UNC did have plenty of surprises in an otherwise disappointing season. After being criticized all summer in the wake of a poor 2009 performance, senior quarterback T.J. Yates bounced back in a big way. Defections on the defensive line forced end Quinton Coples to move to tackle, where he earned first-team All-ACC honors.
But this still wasn't quite how Tar Heels fans envisioned this season would go. And while the Music City Bowl may represent a comedown for a North Carolina team that entered the summer with legitimate BCS aspirations, Tennessee is overjoyed to be in any bowl at all.
Tennessee lost six of its first eight games under new coach Derek Dooley before rallying to win four in a row. The late-season emergence of true freshman quarterback Tyler Bray has the Vols believing they can use this bowl as a springboard that will allow them to enter the 2011 season with plenty of momentum.
"I know everybody's excited about the bowl game," Dooley said. "Everybody's asked me, 'Why is it important to go to a bowl game?' To me, it's the benchmark standard for every program. … It certainly is good for recruiting as far as the direction of your program and where you're headed and what their opportunities are when they come to Tennessee."
Although UNC and Tennessee play in neighboring states and have met 31 times (Tennessee leads the all-time series 20-10-1), they haven't faced each other in 49 years. Over the summer, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton canceled a home-and-home series that called for the teams to meet in 2011 at North Carolina and in 2012 at Tennessee. Fate managed to bring them together anyway.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
North Carolina rush offense vs. Tennessee rush defense: North Carolina's ground attack suffered a blow when leading rusher Johnny White broke his collarbone on Nov. 6, knocking him out for the rest of the season. His replacement, Anthony Elzy, who played well down the stretch, will miss the game after he violated team rules. Senior Shaun Draughn likely will get the start. Starting G Alan Pelc is injured and also will miss the game. Tennessee is allowing 4.1 yards per carry and 152.7 rushing yards per game. Edge: Tennessee.
North Carolina pass offense vs. Tennessee pass defense: This may be the best matchup of the game. UNC's T.J. Yates has thrown for 3,143 yards and 18 touchdowns. Seven of his eight interceptions came in two games -- losses to Miami and Virginia Tech. He threw for more than 400 yards against LSU, Florida State and N.C. State. Yates must watch out for a ball-hawking Tennessee pass defense that has 17 interceptions, including 10 in November. CB Prentiss Waggner has returned three interceptions for touchdowns. Edge: North Carolina.
Tennessee rush offense vs. North Carolina rush defense: Tennessee ranks 100th nationally in rushing at 119.6 yards per game, but the Vols had more success running the ball late in the season. Tauren Poole has rushed for 994 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he gained at least 99 yards in three of the Vols' last four games. North Carolina has allowed just 3.9 yards per carry and 133.8 rushing yards per game to rank 36th in run defense. The Heels will be without star LB Bruce Carter, who is injured; that puts more pressure on fellow LBs Kevin Reddick and Quan Sturdivant to come up big against the run. Edge: North Carolina.
Tennessee pass offense vs. North Carolina pass defense: Tennessee's late-season surge coincided with the installation of true freshman Tyler Bray as the Vols' starting quarterback. Bray threw 14 touchdown passes and five interceptions in the Vols' past five games; he also passed for at least 323 yards in three of the Vols' final four regular-season contests. WR Denarius Moore has caught a touchdown pass in five consecutive games and reached the 200-yard mark against South Carolina and Kentucky. North Carolina's secondary features pro prospects Kendric Burney at corner and Deunta Williams at free safety, but the Tar Heels have struggled this year against top ACC quarterbacks such as Christian Ponder of Florida State and Tyrod Taylor of Virginia Tech. The Vols have allowed 37 sacks and UNC has made 25. Edge: Tennessee.
North Carolina special teams vs. Tennessee special teams: North Carolina's Casey Barth is 16-of-19 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 49, though he has attempted only three kicks from at least 40 yards out. C.J. Feagles averages 36.9 yards per punt, and the Tar Heels rank just 118th in net punting. The Tar Heels also are just 87th in kickoff-return coverage. Tennessee's Daniel Lincoln is 10-of-11 on field-goal attempts and 5-of-5 from at least 40 yards out. P Chad Cunningham has averaged 42.1 yards per attempt, and the Vols rank 67th in net punting. Tennessee ranks ninth in kickoff coverage. Edge: Tennessee.
North Carolina coaches vs. Tennessee coaches: Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has exceeded expectations in his first year on the job, while North Carolina fans expected more from Butch Davis' team this season. Even so, we have to give the nod to Davis' staff here. Even though UNC has lost each of its two bowls since his arrival, Davis has much more postseason coaching experience than Dooley. Edge: North Carolina.
X-factor: Will the partisan crowd be a factor? You can expect a sea of orange at LP Field for this game. Although Tennessee is based in Knoxville, the Vols have a history of success in Nashville, the site of in-state rival Vanderbilt's campus. Tennessee has won its past 15 games in Nashville. Of course, this UNC team is better than the competition Tennessee usually faces in Nashville.
North Carolina will win if: Yates must play well and avoid the turnovers that cost him against Virginia Tech and Miami. The team that gets the best quarterback production likely will win the game.
Tennessee will win if: The Vols must maintain the momentum they established late in the regular season. If their defense plays as well in December as it did in November, the Vols should have reason to celebrate.
Olin Buchanan: Tennessee 21, North Carolina 20
Tom Dienhart: North Carolina 28, Tennessee 24
David Fox: Tennessee 28, North Carolina 17
Mike Huguenin: North Carolina 28, Tennessee 23
Steve Megargee: Tennessee 28, North Carolina 20