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Russell Athletic Bowl Preview: #10 UNC vs #17 Baylor

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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Athletic Bowl: North Carolina vs Baylor, 5:30 PM, ESPN

In this age of 40 bowl games and the long break between games, the questions regarding motivation and focus are commonplace. That was the case last season when UNC went to the Quick Lane Bowl after losing 35-7 to NC State. The Tar Heels clearly had no interest in being there, the defensive staff had lost the players and the 2014 season ended in a massive tailspin.The result was a 40-21 loss to Rutgers and a whole litany of questions about the direction of the program under Larry Fedora.

What a difference a year makes.

UNC will take the field in Orlando today as the #10 team in the country with plenty to play for and a group of seniors looking to go out on a high note. First and foremost, the Tar Heels are chasing a little school history in the form of the number 12. In Tar Heel football history, UNC has won 11 games just four times before(1972, 1980, 1997 and 2015.)  No UNC team has ever won 12 games making this uncharted territory and a legacy these players can claim. As the season rolled on with win after win, the 1997 season was often referenced as the "last time" for the type of success this team was experiencing. The 2015 Tar Heels have matched or eclipsed much of what 1997 did and with 12 wins can become the new gold standard for Tar Heel football.

As much as staking a historical claim is motivation for this team, the seniors certainly would love to leave with a win. This is the case for most seniors playing in their final game in any sport but for these seniors it would be a nice sendoff given the turmoil of the past four to five years. When the seniors on this team showed up on campus the NCAA scandal involving UNC football was at its peak and penalties would follow in short order. That should have been the end of it but it wasn't. That scandal gave birth to the academic scandal which continues to fester. UNC's seniors have spent their entire career at UNC dealing with the fallout from a scandal they had no hand in causing.

While UNC as an institution will and should bear the burden for the malfeasance committed, the players who have arrived in the years since the last AFAM "paper class" feel the impact for something that had nothing to do with them. They've dealt with everything from the cloud of uncertainty surrounding the program to a former academic adviser violating their privacy and revealing academic information regarding their grades.The seniors missed playing in an ACC Championship game in 2012 thanks to NCAA penalties, went through a 1-5 start in 2013 before turning it around to finish 7-6, had one of the worst defenses in school history last season, lost to ECU and Duke, twice, with the former scoring 55 and 70 points on the Tar Heels.

For the UNC seniors their time in Chapel Hill has been a rough ride to say the least. The 2015 season has been about reversing all of that and taking the program to a level it has never been before. With Larry Fedora getting a contract extension and Gene Chizik apparently happy to stay in Chapel Hill the future of UNC football is brighter than it has been at any point in over 20 years. The foundation for that success has been this senior class who stuck it out when circumstances were less than ideal. Before this season their legacy looked very much like most other ones found in UNC history. With a win today they can claim one no other Tar Heel ever has.

UNC 45 Baylor 38