Tennessee was heavily criticized by its fans for dropping North Carolina from the schedule for the next two seasons. The Volunteers faithful certainly seem eager for the matchup, and they've showed it by helping make sure that LP Field is sold out for the Music City Bowl.

The Vols and Tar Heels will meet for the first time since 1961 on Thursday night, with a pro-Tennessee crowd expected in Nashville.

Tennessee (6-6) was scheduled to visit North Carolina (7-5) in 2011, with the Tar Heels set to come to Knoxville in 2012. Vols athletics director Mike Hamilton, though, felt he had to make his school's schedule easier and Tennessee officials decided to pay a $750,000 buyout of the series contract.

The move upset Vols fans, many of whom were critical of the school's preference to schedule a non-BCS opponent instead. That backlash led Hamilton to push Music City officials to invite North Carolina. "When we talked about potential matchups, we actually let [them] know that Carolina would be our first choice to play," Hamilton said. "We knew our fans wanted to play North Carolina."

Tennessee is thrilled to be playing in any bowl after losing six of its first eight games under new head coach Derek Dooley. The Vols recovered to win their final four contests to become bowl-eligible, and will play in the Music City Bowl for the first time.

"Sitting there at 2-6 and people are talking about us being the worst football team in Tennessee history, and nobody in this organization flinched," Dooley said. "I'm real proud of them for that. We never got affected by the results. We kept improving each week."

The Vols are likely to feel right at home at LP Field, with plenty of orange-clad fans showing up for road games against Memphis and Vanderbilt this season. "We are certainly excited about the invitation, and I know our players are looking forward to the opportunity to compete against a great opponent," Dooley said.

"This will be the fourth stadium that we play in in the state of Tennessee this year, and the support we've had at every stadium has been phenomenal. I know our fans will be there in full force in Nashville."

The Tar Heels have endured a difficult season, with 14 players missing at least one game and seven sitting out the entire season. Those absences were the result of a scandal that forced assistant coach John Blake to resign, and also resulted in a suspension for NFL agent Gary Wichard.

North Carolina had four players declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA, including one after he had played the first four games. The most notable loss was star defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who was dismissed from the team in October.

The Tar Heels thought they would contend in the ACC with a defense that returned nine starters. The suspensions hampered the unit, which is fourth in the conference with 338.5 yards allowed per game.

"I congratulate our team, and especially the 17 seniors, for the extraordinary job they've done in leading our program to a third consecutive bowl appearance," head coach Butch Davis said. "Regardless of the situation, this team fought week after week to make our fans proud. We look forward to representing North Carolina against a talented Tennessee team."

T.J. Yates and his fellow seniors will play in a bowl outside of North Carolina for the first time. The Tar Heels' last three postseason appearances were in Charlotte in the Meineke Bowl.

"Everybody on this team has extremely high expectations for ourselves and our team," said Yates, whose 67.6 completion percentage was seventh best in the FBS. "We know we could've done better. ... With all the stuff that happened, this situation is a pretty good one for us and we all kind of realize that."

Among the many players missing for the Tar Heels will be running back Anthony Elzy, who did not travel with the team after failing to meet his obligations as a student-athlete. Elzy started the last three games after Johnny White went down with a broken collarbone, and he rushed for a career-high 118 yards in the finale against Duke.

Starting linebacker Bruce Carter and starting offensive lineman Alan Pelc also are out for North Carolina. Carter had surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament Dec. 13, while Pelc had surgery the day before on his left shoulder.

The Vols got going when freshman Tyler Bray replaced Louisville transfer Matt Simms at quarterback after the 2-6 start. Bray threw for 12 touchdowns during the win streak, while Simms had eight for the season.

Tauren Poole ran for an average of 91.5 yards during the last four games, scoring five of his 11 rushing touchdowns in that span.

North Carolina and Tennessee met in 17 consecutive seasons from 1945-61, but have never matched up in a bowl game. Tennessee owns a 20-10-1 edge in the series.

North Carolina (7-5) vs. Tennessee (6-6), 6:30 p.m. Thursday on ESPN

  • Series Record: Tennessee, 20-10-1.
  • Last Meeting: 1961 -- North Carolina 22-21.

What's at Stake
North Carolina can match its 8-5 record of the past two years and salvage a trying season with a win. The Tar Heels had great expectations for 2010, but were derailed by an NCAA investigation into agent-related benefits and academic misconduct that eventually forced 14 players to miss at least one game. Seven missed the entire season. Tennessee wants to finish off head coach Derek Dooley's first season with a five-game winning streak after a 2-6 start.

Key Matchup
Tennessee secondary against North Carolina passing offense. The Tar Heels rank third in the Atlantic Coast Conference and 25th nationally, averaging 266.5 yards passing per game. Tennessee ranked 82nd nationally, allowing 229.3 yards passing per game. But the Vols intercepted 17 passes this season, which tied for second in the Southeastern Conference and tied for ninth nationally. DB Prentiss Waggner returned three interceptions for TDs for the Vols.

Players to Watch
North Carolina -- QB T.J. Yates. The senior already is the first player in Tar Heels' history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season, and he has thrown 18 touchdown passes with only eight interceptions. He holds 31 school records and goes into this bowl with 79 pass attempts without an interception.

Tennessee -- QB Tyler Bray. He already has thrown for more yards than any other freshman in school history, including Peyton Manning. Bray is one of only three SEC quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards at least three times this season, and he had a career-best 354 yards in the regular season finale against Kentucky.

Facts & Figures
These teams met yearly between 1945 and 1961. ... North Carolina has lost its past three bowl games, all played in Charlotte. ... The Tar Heels lost their last two bowls by a combined three points. ... Tennessee tied Texas for second all-time in bowl appearances in FBS with this the Vols' 49th. The Vols are 25-23 all-time in bowls. ... The Vols lost their last bowl and are 2-3 in their past five bowls.