CHAPEL HILL — The last time North Carolina played in a nationally televised regular-season game, the Tar Heels did so without 13 suspended players while facing a multifaceted NCAA investigation still in its early days.
Now, more than a year since North Carolina began the 2010 season with that nationally televised 30-24 loss to Louisiana State, the Tar Heels will play in front of another national audience against ACC Coastal Division leader Virginia Tech (8 p.m., ESPN).
In some ways, North Carolina is still seeking what it sought then against LSU: To create something positive.
"Definitely," running back Giovanni Bernard said when asked if the game tonight represents an opportunity for the Tar Heels to earn national recognition for the right reasons. "I think it's big for our entire university to put UNC football back up on there."
Much has transpired since the last time North Carolina played on this kind of national stage, and not much of it good. A victory against the Hokies, though, would provide the football program with the kind of positive vibes that have been difficult to come by during the past 15 months.
It would also help to ease the pain of the Tar Heels' most recent loss - a deflating 13-0 defeat at N.C. State. North Carolina spent its bye week trying to learn from its performance against the Wolfpack, while also trying to forget it.
"We've done a good job of letting that game go," said Bernard, a redshirt freshman who has run for 1,012 yards. "I think we've definitely got that out of our minds. It was a tough loss, and I think as an entire team we've realized that."
Since starting the season 5-1, North Carolina (6-4, 2-4) has lost three of its past four to drop out of the race in the ACC's Coastal Division. Virginia Tech (9-1, 5-1), meanwhile, would clinch a trip to the ACC championship game with a victory tonight and a Virginia loss Saturday at Florida State.
North Carolina could spoil the Hokies' plans - or at least put them on hold - but interim coach Everett Withers said Wednesday his team isn't interested in playing the role of spoiler. No, he said, the bowl-eligible Tar Heels have greater aspirations.
"I think our motivation is to try to win the ball game," Withers said. "We don't look at ourselves in the role of spoiler. We look at ourselves as trying get (a win) and trying to play to the best of our ability each week and play up to our capabilities. If we do that, we feel like we'll have an opportunity to win the game."
To do so, North Carolina's defense will have to slow a Hokies offense that has gained momentum as the season has progressed.
The improvement has coincided with the emergence of Logan Thomas, a 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore quarterback who accounted for 279 yards of offense and five touchdowns in the Hokies' 37-26 victory last weekend at Georgia Tech.
Virginia Tech will enter the game tonight on four days rest, which might not be a bad thing given where Thomas left off.
"He's a real smart guy," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. "He's competitive. He doesn't get rattled. And I think - I've said from the beginning - I think he'll get better every quarter. And I think probably he has."