In essence, North Carolina has nothing more than pride to play for these days.
The Tar Heels are ineligible for the ACC championship and are banned from a bowl game because of their NCAA probation. Fair or not, they are eight games into a glorified 12-game exhibition season where only the stats and records count.
So do rivalries, and with NC State going to Chapel Hill this weekend, it doesn’t get any more intense or hate-filled in the Old North State than when the Tar Heels and Wolfpack get together.
Factor in the heightened sense of angst by UNC fans toward their red-clad neighbors — thanks to an almost unhealthy obsession with Carolina’s recent NCAA issues — and this series should take on a grittier, more compelling tone.
For decades, NC State’s supporters have almost dutifully worn large chips on their shoulders with respect to all things North Carolina. But in the last couple of years, as what was once “The Carolina Way” was officially debunked, and UNC was dragged through the local and national mud, NC State fans found a rallying point to unify and stomp on the hated Heels. As a result, the constant beating has ignited a new-found anti-State passion among the majority of Carolina fans.
That animosity should be on display among the pines at Kenan Memorial Stadium this weekend. And quite frankly, this is great for the rivalry.
Carolina folks can’t stand Duke basketball but may be developing the same loathing for NC State, especially its football program. Having lost five consecutive games to Tom O’Brien’s Wolfpack has aided in the dislike, and so have some of the spewings from O’Brien’s mouth the last few years.
NC State isn’t being dismissed as the insignificant other by UNC anymore. Maybe that’s why first-year Carolina coach Larry Fedora spoke differently about this week’s game than he did last week’s bout at Duke.
“It’s a big rivalry game, obviously,” Fedora said Monday. “That’s been pointed out to me since the first handshake when I took the job and, again, like I’ve said before it’s what makes college football so great. … This is a big game.”
It sure is.
Just this past weekend, UNC was on the losing side of a rivalry game at Duke that saw the Blue Devils become bowl eligible for the first time in 18 years and drive 87 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds left to play to upset the Tar Heels.
North Carolina had won 21 of the previous 22 meetings between the programs. So the tables can be somewhat turned for Carolina this weekend.
UNC has a chance to really knock State back on its heels, no pun intended. The Wolfpack enter this weekend’s affair in control of their own destiny in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The Pack are 5-2 overall and 2-1 in the league. Florida State is 4-1, but its loss was in Raleigh, so if both should win out, O’Brien’s team will play for the ACC championship in Charlotte on Dec. 1.
NC State hasn’t played Clemson, which also has just one league defeat (at FSU), so the loser of that game theoretically is out of the race. But if the Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack this weekend and basically knock State from contention in the Atlantic, it should resonate among its base much like a championship or bowl victory for the baby blues.
But it won’t happen if the Wolfpack continue doing what they have the last five years vs. the Heels and the last two weeks against Florida State and at Maryland. Late scoring drives lifted NC State the last two weeks by three total points. Maryland helped by missing a short field goal with just six seconds left that would have given the Terrapins the victory.
NC State won, though, and remains right in the middle of the ACC title hunt. On the other side of the field, UNC can make its season by ending that quest.
It should be fun, in the stands and on the field, just like a rivalry’s supposed to.