The most talented team in college football did not win the national championship in 2010. The most talented team of the last college season never even lined up to play a single game together.
Auburn captured the national title in January, but it was North Carolina that took the best collection of players to camp last August.
The NFL validated that talent by inviting 12 Tar Heels to its annual scouting combine in February. The teams that played in the national championship game -- Auburn and Oregon -- had only eight players invited to the combine between them.
But the North Carolina roster was ravaged by an NCAA investigation into improper benefits, resulting in suspensions that kept 13 players out of games.
Seven of those players were invited to the NFL combine, and two of them, defensive linemen Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin, project as first-round draft picks.
Quinn, Austin and wide receiver Greg Little were suspended for the entire season for accepting illegal benefits. Little also projects as a premium draft pick (first three rounds).
Starting cornerback Charles Brown and safety Jonathan Smith also were suspended for all 13 games, as was defensive end Michael McAdoo, Quinn's backup.
The NCAA suspended cornerback Kendric Burney for six games and safety Deunta Williams for four. Both players were at the combine. Safety Da'Norris Smith missed three games and halfback Shaun Draughn one before they were cleared of any wrongdoing by the NCAA. Both players were also invited to the combine.
Oh, what might have been....
"I don't think there's any question we had a team that could compete for the ACC championship with a great opportunity to play in a BCS game," North Carolina coach Butch Davis said.
Burney took it a step further: "I feel like we would have contended for a national championship if this team could have stayed together."
Williams was willing to take it the final step: "No disrespect to anyone else, but we'd have won the national championship."
How talented were the Tar Heels? Despite team and NCAA suspensions that cost 13 players a total of 123 games, North Carolina still finished 8-5 with a victory over Tennessee in the Music City Bowl.
"I challenge anybody to find worse adversity for a team and a program," said quarterback T.J. Yates. "We had it from all angles -- NCAA, academics, injuries. There were times we were stretching our depth chart in the middle of games. Coach Davis would be looking on the sidelines asking if anyone can run down on a kickoff.
"It got pretty hectic at times. I don't think any other team in the country went through what we did and still salvaged a very good season."
Eleven of the 13 players missed the season opener at LSU, including three of the four starters in the defensive backfield. But with several true freshmen on the field, North Carolina gamely competed, losing 30-24, to an LSU team that would finish ranked No. 8 with an 11-2 record and a Cotton Bowl victory.
"From week to week we had no idea who'd be playing," Yates said. "We'd be at the bus and a couple of guys would be on the phone waiting to see if they could get on the bus. These weren't any normal guys -- these were our starters, our leaders.
"Having that kind of stuff weighing on you as you go into your weekly preparation ... We knew everybody on the entire team had to be ready each week."
North Carolina lost by an identical 30-24 score on the second weekend to a Georgia Tech team that would end up in the Independence Bowl.
The Tar Heels ranked sixth in the NCAA in defense in 2009 and returned all 11 starters. To allow 60 points in two games was not the type of defense North Carolina expected to play in 2010. But that happens when you subtract seven starters, most of whom were NFL prospects, on the eve of the season.
"People were starting to question whether we could win any games without our defense," Yates said. "We on the offense had to do anything possible to get us into position to win ball games."
And win games the Tar Heels did, emerging victorious in eight of their final 11 games playing a schedule that included nine bowl teams and four opponents that finished with Top 25 rankings.
"It brings tears to my eyes to think about what could have been with this team," Draughn said. "Now we're just an afterthought."
Halfback Johnny White, tight end Zack Pianalto and linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant also were invited to the combine.
ALL FOR THE BEST
Little managed to turn his suspension into a positive.
"It was one of the best things that every happened to me in my life," he said. "It was a very pivotal point, a defining moment. I said, 'Hey, this is not who you are. It's something I've done; I've made a mistake. You have to move on.' That's what I'm doing.
"This is a great start to my path of redemption. I'm out to prove that even though you make mistakes, you can still progress."
Austin also used his suspension as a learning experience.
"It was a young mistake," he said. "I got ahead of myself. I learned never to take the game for granted. This is a privilege. A lot of guys would kill to be in our shoes (as NFL prospects), so take advantage of it and don't abuse your situation. I went from being one of the top prospects in the nation to becoming an afterthought.
"It was a tough situation to sit back and watch all the other defensive linemen go out and perform and me not being able to do anything when I felt I was the best. It put things in perspective. It made you sit back and think about the opportunity you have in front of you.
"You take every play as if it's you're last because it could possibly be your last. Going through that situation made me and my teammates grow, and I think we'll be better professionals because of it."