Beating adversity

The Tennessee and North Carolina football teams who collide Dec. 30 in the Music City Bowl may be strangers to one another but they're no strangers to adversity.

Consider:

Due to the attrition caused by head coaching changes in both 2008 and 2009, the depth-shy Vols were forced to play 16 freshmen in either first- or second-team roles this season.

They lost two projected starting defensive linemen - end Ben Martin and tackle Marlon Walls - to preseason Achilles injuries.

They had an apparent 14-10 win at LSU overturned due to having 13 men on the field for the final play, then lost 16-14 when the Tigers scored on the "do-over" after time had expired.

They were labeled "the worst team in school history" by some of their own fans after consecutive blowout losses to Georgia (41-10), Alabama (41-14) and South Carolina (38-24) dropped their record to 2-6 in late October.

The Big Orange overcame adversity, however, winning its last four games to finish 6-6 and earn a bowl bid.

The Tar Heels had to overcome considerable difficulty on their way to the Music City Bowl, as well. The most notable, of course, was the suspension of several key players for violating NCAA rules regarding improper benefits and academic misconduct.

Fourteen players missed at least one game this season, with six (including standout defensive tackle Marvin Austin) missing the entire regular season.

Despite having 12 players suspended for Game 1 vs. LSU, North Carolina fought valiantly before losing 30-24. And, despite the long-term suspensions, the Tar Heels won seven of their last 10 games following an 0-2 start to finish regular-season play at 7-5.

Given all North Carolina had to endure in 2010, Tennessee's Derek Dooley has considerable respect for the bowl foe.

"We're playing a great opponent, as talented a team as I've seen all year on film," the Vols' head man said. "They went through a lot of adversity that affected their results but they've done a great job of overcoming it. So give their coaching staff credit for the job it has done this year in keeping them focused through a lot of distraction."

Because Dooley was battling adversities of his own in August and September, he was only vaguely aware of the off-field issues that got Carolina in the NCAA doghouse at the start of the season.

"The only thing I'm aware of is what you read in the mainstream media, so I can't speak on any of it," the Vol coach said of the Tar Heel suspensions. "I know it was a challenging time. I have a lot of respect for (UNC head man) Butch Davis. I know what happened was not a reflection of who he was."

How much, if any, Davis knew about the violations occurring in his program is a matter of conjecture. Dooley suspects Carolina's head man was oblivious to them.

"That's the one fear you always have as a head football coach - that things are happening in your program that go in a (negative) direction, and when you become aware of it, it's a real disaster," Tennessee's head man said. "I had a lot of sympathy for what he's gone through. That's a tough thing."

Like the Vols, though, the Tar Heels fought through their adversity and managed to salvage a season that once appeared doomed.

"I thought one of the most remarkable performances they had was that first game, where they were missing (12) guys," Dooley said. "And you all know how good LSU is. The way they competed, and the way they competed all year, it's a real tribute to excellent coaching."

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