North Carolina coach Mack Brown said that he didn’t know at the beginning of the season that the goal would be to have the Tar Heels playing in a bowl game.

The biggest objective was to show progress and regular improvement.

“I had absolutely no idea what we were going to do,” Brown said.

So the victory in the season opener against South Carolina surprised him. Since then, there have been ups and downs for the Tar Heels, who’ve reached the cusp of bowl eligibility.

In order to take that next step, North Carolina must win Saturday night at North Carolina State, which will be playing in its final game of the season.

For the senior class of Tar Heels, they’re hoping things can sort of come full circle.

“We know what it looks like when we first game in,” senior defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge said, then noting the past two years were off the tracks.

While understanding there needed to be growth and some rebuilding with the Tar Heels, Brown said he didn’t want to that quest to overshadow the urgency that would involve players in their final season with the team.

So if the best players were veterans who won’t be around to help in future seasons, those would be the players tagged into key roles this year, Brown said.

“Everything we’re doing is to try to win now,” he said. “We promised our seniors at the first of the year that we were going to do everything we could to win every game for you because this is it for you.”

North Carolina’s five-win total matches the 2017 and 2018 seasons combined. Brown said it’s important “to finish a lot better than they did the last two years.”

Brown said the Tar Heels’ confidence has been on the rise.

“Everybody who watches them knows that there is a great future and that they’re playing with a lot of confidence,” he said. “And you’ve got bowl eligibility at the end for us, and that’s something that these guys want to do. A lot of our team hasn’t been to a bowl.” 

The range of experiences is bound to help, with last week’s romp past Mercer a rare lopsided game.

“We’ve been through so many emotional games,” North Carolina freshman quarterback Sam Howell said. “I’m just proud that we’ve been able to fight.”

The Tar Heels are expecting a tussle with N.C. State, which has a five-game losing streak.

N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said the game is important for Wolfpack players and fans even though a victory won’t be able to extend the season.

“Every one of these games that I’ve been a part of has been heated,” Doeren said of the rivalry. “I know how much we want to win and how much they want to win.” 

The potential rewards on the North Carolina side are more widespread. So the idea of ending the Tar Heels’ season is something that could add to the Wolfpack’s motivation.

“They would love to finish by not only beating their rival, but keeping us from going to a bowl game,” Brown said. “We’ll see, by far, their best shot.”

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Kickoff

Who: North Carolina (5-6, 3-4) at N.C. State (4-7, 1-6)

When: 7 p.m. Saturday (ACC Network)

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh

Series: North Carolina leads 65-36-6, though N.C. State has won the past three meetings

Extra points …

N.C. State coach Dave Doeren is 4-2 in games against the Tar Heels. … North Carolina coach Mack Brown went 5-5 vs. the Wolfpack in his first go-ahead as Tar Heels coach. His teams dropped the first five and won the next five. … N.C. State defeated Brown’s Texas team in the 1999 season opener, while his 1983 Appalachian State team also lost to the Wolfpack. … This is the fifth year in a row the teams meet on the final weekend of the regular season. … Former Eden Morehead players Tyler Dabbs and Will Dabbs are redshirt juniors for N.C. State, but they’ve opted to go through Senior Night recognition as they don’t plan to play in 2020.