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UNC Football: The Tar Heels’ history in January bowl games

First the first time in over 20 years, the Tar Heels will be playing a bowl game after the clock has struck midnight on New Year’s Eve.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Florida vs Virginia Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

On January 2nd, North Carolina will take the field in the Orange Bowl against Texas A&M. It will be the program’s first trip to Miami for an Orange Bowl, and arguably their most high profile bowl appearance since 1950.

It will also be the first time since 1998 that the Tar Heels have appeared in a bowl game after the dawn of a New Year. Their last 12 bowl berths have all come in games that have happened in December. While the BCS and now playoff and just the packed bowl season means lots of games are played in January, getting back into the New Year is a notable achievement for the program.

In honor of the Tar Heels’ return to the big time bowl stage, let’s go back in history and look at the previous times they’ve played in January.

The first three times UNC went to bowl games, they were January ones. One reason for that is because it was the late 40s/early 50s and there were less bowls. The other reason was that all three of those Tar Heel teams were good. The “worst” was a 7-3 team ranked #16 that won the Southern Conference title.

They lost all three of those games. The first two came during the Charlie Justice years, but he wasn’t quite enough to get them wins. They lost the Sugar Bowl in 1947 and ‘49 to George and Oklahoma respectively. After Justice left, the Heels went to the Cotton Bowl in 1950 but lost to Rice.

It would be a long time after that until the next UNC team to play in January. Despite the regular top 20 teams in the 70s and 80s under Bill Dooley and Dick Crum, they couldn’t crack a New Year’s Day game. It took until a familiar face came to town.

After two one-win season to start his career in Chapel Hill, Mack Brown finally led Carolina to a winning record in 1990. The next year, they made an appearance in the top 25. Despite that, they didn’t play in bowl season either year. In 1992, an 8-3 season got them an invite to the Peach Bowl, which was played on January 2, 1993. There, they beat Mississippi State for UNC’s first ever January bowl win.

Brown led the Heels to bowl games all of the next couple years, but they made their first New Year’s Day game in 48 years after the 1996 season. Following a 9-2 regular season, UNC made the Gator Bowl and beat West Virginia.

The next year they returned to the Gator Bowl, although they would’ve been hoping for better earlier in the season. That was, of course, the year where they went 10-1 and peaked at #4 in the rankings. However, the loss to Florida State saw them relegated down to the Gator Bowl against an unranked Virginia Tech. By the time that was played, Brown had already taken the Texas job and Carl Torbush led the team to a 42-3 beatdown win on January 1, 1998.

Until they take the field on Saturday, that is still the most recent January bowl for UNC. Hopefully, it becomes a more regular occurrence than it previously has been.