Missouri, UNC meet in Independence Bowl

Big changes are coming for the football programs at Missouri and
North Carolina. Before they happen, there’s one more football game
to play.

The Tigers and Tar Heels meet on Monday in the Independence
Bowl, and both teams have become quite experienced at juggling
questions about their long-term future with the upcoming matchup.
Players and coaches are adamant the focus will be squarely on the
field.

”We’re expecting to play our best game,” Missouri coach Gary
Pinkel said. ”And we expect North Carolina to play their best
game.”

Not that there aren’t reasons to be distracted. North Carolina
(7-5) is in the midst of a coaching change, while Missouri (7-5) is
preparing for its move to the Southeastern Conference after an
acrimonious exit from the Big 12.

The Tar Heels endured more than their share of turmoil this
season under interim head coach Everett Withers, who took over in
July after Butch Davis was fired shortly before preseason camp in
the shadow of an NCAA investigation.

Withers was a candidate for the full-time job until last week,
when North Carolina announced the hiring of Southern Mississippi
coach Larry Fedora. Fedora takes over the program immediately after
the bowl game and Withers is headed to Ohio State, where he’ll be
the defensive coordinator for new coach Urban Meyer.

Withers’ time is already divided. He said he spent part of his
week making recruiting calls for the Buckeyes before turning his
focus back to North Carolina.

He expects his team to handle any extra adversity without
issues. The Tar Heels have certainly had plenty of practice.

”This has been an experience for all of us,” Withers said.
”Each player has done an unbelievable job of holding this together
to have the success that we’ve had the past two years. It’s been
remarkable. I haven’t looked at it as tumultuous. I’ve looked at it
as a life lesson – a journey – that you go through.”

Coaching stability isn’t a problem at Missouri (7-5), where
Pinkel is wrapping up his 11th season with a program-record seventh
consecutive bowl appearance. Instead, it’s the move to the SEC
that’s the constant topic of conversation.

”There’s no question about it – this is historically a big
moment with us playing our last game in the Big 12,” Pinkel said.
”That’s kind of on my shoulders and on our players’ shoulders.
This game is important for many reasons, but it will be remembered
specifically for that reason.”

While North Carolina and Missouri share a penchant for off-field
issues, they also have similar on-field resumes.

Both are talented teams that have experienced bouts of success
and failure. Missouri started the season with a 4-5 record before
consecutive wins over Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas earned them the
right to go to the Independence Bowl.

Missouri sophomore quarterback James Franklin has thrown for
2,733 yards and 20 touchdowns this season while also rushing for
839 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Tigers’ defense has given up just
14 points per game during the recent three-game winning streak.

”It’s been kind of an up-and-down year for us, so it’d be nice
to end with four (wins) in a row and end our time in the Big 12 the
way we want to,” receiver T.J. Moe said. ”And for the guys who
are going to be here next season, it can be a springboard into the
SEC.”

North Carolina started the season 5-1, but stumbled down the
stretch, losing four of the last six to finish with a 3-5 ACC
record.

Still, the Tar Heels won their regular-season finale against
Duke and have one of the best freshmen running backs in the country
in Giovani Bernard.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder from Davie, Fla., rebounded from a
torn knee ligament last season to become the program’s first
1,000-yard rusher since 1997.

”You see the great running backs, and they’re with the great
teams,” Bernard said. ”That’s the main thing. Dwight Jones has
done a great job catching the ball all year and our offensive line
has protected me and Bryn (Renner) amazingly this year. The credit
goes out to those guys. I’m following the blocks. A little patience
helps.”

Renner, a sophomore, led the ACC in passing efficiency and has
thrown for 2,769 yards, 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Renner said all of the team’s adversity has taken a toll, but
also made the Tar Heels resilient. Though disappointed Withers
won’t be around next season to coach the team, he said the Tar
Heels are determined to send everyone out a winner.

”This coaching staff – you can’t say enough about the job coach
Withers did for us all season,” Renner said. ”That’s really who
we’re playing for. This staff and this team.”

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