ATLANTA -- Let's be honest: Auburn's James Callier didn't expect to end his college career at the Peach Bowl.
After playing in the Southeastern Conference championship game last season, Callier and the Tigers needed just one victory in their final two regular-season games to play again for the SEC title - and a Bowl Championship Series berth.
Instead, Auburn (7-4) finished with two blowout losses. Goodbye, BCS. Hello, Peach Bowl, where the Tigers will meet North Carolina (7-5) on Monday night in the final game of 2001.
"To be totally honest, we didn't envision ourselves in this game," Callier said. "But we worked out tails off to get to a bowl. It's not on New Year's Day, but it's the day before. You go for the stars, but sometimes you miss and hit the moon."
North Carolina has no complaints about its postseason destination. The Tar Heels didn't go anywhere the last two seasons and were an unlikely bowl candidate when they started 0-3 under first-year coach John Bunting.
"When we were 0-3, I wasn't thinking this far ahead," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "I was just trying to win the next game."
In retrospect, the poor start was perfectly understandable. The Tar Heels lost three straight road games to Oklahoma, Maryland and Texas - all of which ended the season in the Top Ten.
"We didn't have a terrible showing in any of those games," Peppers said. "We had confidence that we could pull together. We came together against Florida State."
North Carolina turned things around with a shocking 41-9 triumph over the Seminoles, beginning a five-game winning streak. There was another bump in a road when Ronald Curry, half of the quarterback rotation, missed two games because of an injury and a death in his family. The Tar Heels lost both, but clinched a bowl bid by winning their final two games after Curry returned.
Now, Bunting feels his team is on the cusp of something memorable.
"Some people believe we've already had a great season," Bunting said. "I say it's a good season. If we win this game, we can say we've had a great season."
Though they took different paths to the Peach Bowl, North Carolina and Auburn are linked in many respects.
"There are a lot of similarities, even down to the suspended receivers," Bunting quipped Sunday.
"I got mine earlier," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville interjected.
Two weeks ago, Tuberville suspended Deandre Green, the team's second-leading receiver with 32 catches, for violating team rules. After the Tar Heels arrived in Atlanta, Bunting sent junior Bosley Allen home for the same unspecified reason, giving up a player who had 39 receptions for 562 yards and averaged 10.3 yards as a punt returner.
North Carolina will have offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill, who underwent surgery a couple of weeks ago for a lung infection. While the 40-year coaching veteran didn't take part in the team's outdoor practices, he was on the field Saturday for a workout at the Georgia Dome.
"He threw his hat and yelled and screamed," Bunting said. "The players got all fired up about that. They know Tranq is back."
Barring any complications, Tranquill will be in the booth calling plays for Curry and freshman Darian Durant.
Durant is the better passer, while Curry is more apt to run. Still, the quarterbacks are similar enough that Tuberville doesn't expect the rotation to cause any major problems for Auburn's defense.
"We prepare for the offense more than the quarterbacks," he said. "Both those guys are athletic and do a lot of things. It's not that big a transition."
Auburn will have its own rotation at running back. Freshman Carnell "Cadillac" Williams won't be able to play after breaking his shoulder blade in a Nov. 17 loss to Alabama.
Williams worked out with the team in Atlanta but X-rays showed the injury had not healed enough to get back on the field. Redshirt freshman Ronnie Brown will start at running back, but Casinious Moore and Chris Butler also will get playing time.
"We've had a running back by committee all year anyway," Tuberville said.
Likewise, Auburn has struggled to find a No. 1 quarterback. Jason Campbell started the first six games and Daniel Cobb the next four before Campbell reclaimed the top spot.
The redshirt freshman will start the Peach Bowl.
"Daniel is a little more experienced, but we're just going to go with Jason," Tuberville said. "He's the younger guy and he's going to be here three more years. He's going to go through some tough times, but we're going to let him learn his way."
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