UNC will be hoping to end a messy season on a high note, looking to knock off Tennessee in the Music City Bowl in Nashville on Thursday night.

UNC quarterback T.J. Yates

  • Photo courtesy UNC athletics
  • UNC quarterback T.J. Yates

Butch Davis’ 7-5 Tar Heels spent the whole season undergoing two prongs of internal and NCAA investigations for both academic wrongdoing and players receiving improper benefits from agents, and had dozens of players to miss at least one game during the whole mess.

But Davis and his team — in large part because of the stellar play of once-maligned quarterback T.J. Yates — managed to hold things together well enough to get a winning season, getting highlight victories over East Carolina, Clemson, Virginia and Florida State along the way.

Even in the bowl game the Tar Heels will be without top running back senior Anthony Elzy, who is on an internal suspension for disciplinary reasons.

“A lot of times when you go to bowl games and people talk about the experience you’re going to have, it’s over-promised and under-delivered,” Davis said Wednesday. “But I can honestly tell you that everything we’ve done this week has been first-class. We’re very appreciative and glad to be here.

“Twenty-four hours before kickoff it’s too late to weave in any new plays. You’re focused on what’s important — how you’re going to play, the matchup you’re going to be involved in, eliminate as much of the distraction as you can and be ready to play.”

There is extra interest in the game because of the cancellation — with a $750,000 buyout from Tennessee — of the teams’ two-game home-and-home series scheduled for 2011-12. It will be the schools’ first football meeting in 49 years.

The Vols won the last four games of the regular season to become bowl-eligible at 6-6.

“We have a tremendous amount of respect for what North Carolina has done this year,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “It would be a little bit frightening to see what their team would look like had they not had the adversity they had. They’ve done a remarkable job of recruiting and they have size, speed and athleticism across the board. But more than anything, you see phenomenal coaching when you look at all three phases. They’re very sound, very advanced in a lot of ways, and it’s going to be a big challenge for our football team to go against this caliber of squad.

“I’m proud of how we finished. We came into this season with a tremendous amount of youth and a tremendous amount of inexperience across the board. It took us awhile as coaches to really get to know our personnel. We had so many players who we didn’t know how they were going to perform when the lights went on.”

UNC vs. Tennessee
Music City Bowl
[Thursday, 6:30 p.m., LP Field, Nashville]
UT leads series 20-10-1.
UNC 7-5; UT 6-6.
Audio: WCHL 1360, WRAL-FM 101.5, Sirius 122, XM 143.
Video: ESPN.
Coaches’ records — UNC: Butch Davis 78-43, 27-23 at UNC; UT: Derek Dooley 23-26, 6-6 at UT.
Leading rushers — UNC: Shaun Draughn 106-454, 5 TD; UT: Tauren Poole 193-944, 11 TD.
Leading passers — UNC: T.J. Yates 259-383-3184-8, 18 TD; UT: Tyler Bray 98-179-1537-7, 14 TD.
Leading receivers — UNC: Dwight Jones 57-895, 4 TD; UT: Denarius Moore 43-912, 9 TD.
Leading tacklers — UNC: Zach Brown 66, ½ TFL, 2 INT; UT: Nick Reveiz 94, 6 TFL, 2 INT, 2 FR.
Favorite — UNC by 1 (Vegas).