North Carolina, Missouri's bowl opponent, has had its own issues

Monday, December 5, 2011 | 9:04 p.m. CST; updated 9:56 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Defensive coordinator Everett Withers was hired to head the program after Butch Davis was fired on July 27, eight days before the start of training camp. "Despite some challenging circumstances, this team continued to work hard ..." Withers said.

*An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated when North Carolina became bowl eligible.

COLUMBIA — On Sunday, the Missouri football team accepted a bid to play North Carolina in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 26 in Shreveport, La.

The game, which is at 4 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2, will pit Missouri against a team that has dealt with considerable conflict this season.

North Carolina (7-5, 3-5 ACC) has faced an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct since the summer of 2010. During the course of the 2010 season, there were multiple allegations of player and coach contact with agents. A former team tutor was also linked to allegations of academic fraud. In June 2011, the NCAA formally charged UNC with nine major violations. 

The entire time, head coach Butch Davis kept his job. Then on July 27, seemingly after the fact and eight days before the team was to begin training camp, Davis was fired. UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp said Davis was fired because of cumulative damage to the university’s reputation. The next day, UNC Athletics Director Dick Baddour announced he would be resigning.

Defensive coordinator Everett Withers was hired as the interim head coach of the football team. He didn’t exactly help smooth over matters by rewarding Davis with the game ball after a season-opening win.

However, Withers maintained order enough for North Carolina to take advantage of an easy schedule the first half of the season. The Tar Heels opened with three consecutive home victories against FCS opponent James Madison (42-10), Rutgers (24-22) and Virginia (28-17), and they cracked the USA Today Coaches’ Poll at No. 25. They lost by a touchdown at Georgia Tech the next week but rebounded with wins at East Carolina (35-20) and at home versus Louisville (14-7).

North Carolina’s hopes were tempered when it returned to conference play. It lost a close game to Miami which was followed by a loss to then-No. 8 Clemson. The Tar Heels beat Wake Forest but fell to North Carolina State and then-No. 9 Virginia Tech. They finished the season with a 37-21 win against Duke.*

"I'm excited for our players, especially this group of seniors, to advance to a bowl game for the fourth straight season," Withers said in a statement. "Despite some challenging circumstances, this team continued to work hard and prepare each week for the next game. We now have a chance to win eight games for the fourth straight year and win our second consecutive bowl game."

Missouri’s secondary will have its hands full with quarterback Bryn Renner and wide receiver Dwight Jones. Renner has tied North Carolina’s single-season record of 23 touchdown passes, and Jones caught a school-record 79 passes for 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns, one short of the school record. In addition, running back Giovani Bernard has rushed for 1,222 yards — a freshman record at North Carolina.

The Tar Heels’ defense could pose problems for the Tigers, too. North Carolina is ranked among the best teams in the nation against the run, giving up 106.2 yards a game. Two All-ACC players, defensive end Quinton Coples and linebacker Zach Brown, lead the team. Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, a Jefferson City High School graduate, will line up against a Missouri offensive line that includes his high school teammate, center Travis Ruth.

It is uncertain whether North Carolina will hire Withers as the permanent coach, though the school could make a decision before the bowl game. Withers told The Associated Press he formally interviewed for the job last week and plans on coaching against Missouri regardless of the outcome.

His players wouldn’t want it any other way.

"We've gone through the whole season with him as our coach," Renner said in the AP story. "He's still our coach. He's done a great job of handling everything. You couldn't ask for a better guy to do a better job for this university. Us as players, we're going to focus on playing." 

This is Missouri's seventh consecutive bowl appearance and North Carolina's fourth. Missouri beat North Carolina in their only two meetings — 27-14 in 1973, and 24-3 in 1976. According to Todd Donaho, author of “MizzouRah: Memorable Moments in Missouri Tiger Football History,” the M-I-Z ... Z-O-U chant was heard for the first time in the 1976 game.

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