Tennessee was heavily criticized by its fans for dropping North Carolina from the schedule for the next two seasons. The Volunteers faithful certainly seem anxious for the matchup, and they've showed it by helping make sure that LP Field is sold out for the Music City Bowl.
The Vols and Tar Heels will meet for the first time since 1961 on Thursday night, with a pro-Tennessee crowd expected in Nashville.
Tennessee (6-6) was scheduled to visit North Carolina (7-5) in 2011, with the Tar Heels set to come to Knoxville in 2012. Vols athletics director Mike Hamilton, though, felt he had to make his school's schedule easier and Tennessee officials decided to pay a $750,000 buyout of the series contract.
The move upset Vols fans, many of whom were critical of the school's preference to schedule a non-BCS opponent instead. That backlash led Hamilton to push Music City officials to invite North Carolina.
"When we talked about potential matchups, we actually let (them) know that Carolina would be our first choice to play," Hamilton said. "We knew our fans wanted to play North Carolina."
Tennessee is thrilled to be playing in any bowl after losing six of its first eight games under new coach Derek Dooley. The Vols recovered to win their final four contests to become bowl-eligible, and will play in the Music City Bowl for the first time.
"Sitting there at 2-6 and people are talking about us being the worst football team in Tennessee history, and nobody in this organization flinched," Dooley said. "I'm real proud of them for that. We never got affected by the results. We kept improving each week."
The Vols are likely to feel right at home at LP Field, with plenty of orange-clad fans showing up for road games against Memphis and Vanderbilt this season.
"We are certainly excited about the invitation, and I know our players are looking forward to the opportunity to compete against a great opponent," Dooley said. "This will be the fourth stadium that we play in in the state of Tennessee this year, and the support we've had at every stadium has been phenomenal. I know our fans will be there in full force in Nashville."
The Tar Heels have endured a difficult season, with 14 players missing at least one game and seven sitting out the entire season. Those absences were the result of a scandal that forced assistant coach John Blake to resign, and also resulted in a suspension for NFL agent Gary Wichard.
North Carolina had four players declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA, including one after he had played the first four games. The most notable loss was star defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who was dismissed from the team in October.
The Tar Heels thought they would contend in the ACC with a defense that returned nine starters. The suspensions hampered the unit, which is fourth in the conference with 338.5 yards allowed per game.
"I congratulate our team, and especially the 17 seniors, for the extraordinary job they've done in leading our program to a third consecutive bowl appearance," coach Butch Davis said. "Regardless of the situation, this team fought week after week to make our fans proud. We look forward to representing North Carolina against a talented Tennessee team."
T.J. Yates and his fellow seniors will play in a bowl outside of North Carolina for the first time. The Tar Heels' last three postseason appearances were in Charlotte in the Meineke Bowl.
"Everybody on this team has extremely high expectations for ourselves and our team," said Yates, whose 67.6 completion percentage was seventh best in the FBS. "We know we could've done better. ... With all the stuff that happened, this situation is a pretty good one for us and we all kind of realize that."
Among the many players missing for the Tar Heels will be running back Anthony Elzy, who did not travel with the team after failing to meet his obligations as a student-athlete. Elzy started the last three games after Johnny White went down with a broken collarbone, and he rushed for a career-high 118 yards in the finale against Duke.
Starting linebacker Bruce Carter and starting offensive lineman Alan Pelc also are out for North Carolina. Carter had surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament Dec. 13, while Pelc had surgery the day before on his left shoulder.
The Vols got going when freshman Tyler Bray replaced Louisville transfer Matt Simms at quarterback after the 2-6 start. Bray threw for 12 touchdowns during the win streak, while Simms had eight for the season.
Tauren Poole ran for an average of 91.5 yards over the last four games, scoring five of his 11 rushing touchdowns in that span.
North Carolina and Tennessee met in 17 consecutive seasons from 1945-61, but have never matched up in a bowl game. Tennessee owns a 20-10-1 edge in the series.
AccuScore has powered more than 10,000 simulations for every College Football game on ESPN.com, calculating how each team's performance changes in response to game conditions and opponent's abilities. Each game is simulated and the game is replayed a minimum of 10,000 times to generate forecasted winning percentages.
Tennessee and North Carolina will be playing after all, in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The two teams were supposed to begin a two-game series next season, but Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton paid the penalty to get out of the series because he didn't want the schedule to be so overloaded this early in Derek Dooley's tenure. -- Chris Low