The State-Carolina game will always be the top college football rivalry game in the state of North Carolina, no doubt about that. But with Amato and Bunting at the helm of their respective alma maters, the intensity - and enjoyment - of this rivalry has been kicked up a few notches.
Not that many years ago, both schools had head coaches that - heaven forbid! - actually liked one another. It was bad enough, in many Wolfpackers' eyes, that coach Mike O'Cain never could figure out a way to defeat the Heels, but he also - egad! -- hugged UNC coach Carl Torbush after games.
Amato and Bunting, conversely, may actually enjoy each other's company, but like to play the part of mortal enemies. Heck, the two may actually get together in a secret location (perhaps a hotel room in Durham?) and plot ways to improve the national awareness of the game. On the field, NC State has done its part this season, even with two early losses and a .500 record. The likes of ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit and others continually build up the Pack, and QB Philip Rivers is still rated among the top three Heisman candidates in the country. Plus, a nationally televised, triple-overtime loss at the defending national champs can't hurt your profile.
Bunting's Heels, on the other hand, haven't done their part - which is probably why the State-UNC game this Saturday will only be available on pay-per-view, and not a network.
Off the field, you couldn't ask for two better antagonists. (Or protagonists, depending on your point of view.) Amato has taken subtle jabs at Bunting in the past (Amato's "that's life in the fast lane" comment on signing day a couple of years ago comes to mind), and Bunting, seemingly every chance he gets, manages to throw a dart or two towards Raleigh.
Just this week, Bunting laughed and said he'd be shocked if NCSU tailback T.A. McLendon doesn't play against the Heels. (The NCSU injury report listed McLendon as questionable.) No biggie there. Who honestly thinks McLendon won't play?
"We won't be tricked," a chuckling Bunting told WRBZ 850-AM's Adam Gold on Monday.
The next day, Tuesday's edition of the News & Observer featured a profile on Bunting's vision for his UNC program. The story featured this nugget on recruiting North Carolina and border states: "Bunting said that means the Heels hit Georgia hard because the state's academic standards are high and continue to improve. But Bunting does not recruit as heavily in Florida, where he believes prospects are not as academically strong."
I'm sure freshmen Larry Edwards (Tampa), Daunte Fields (Wellington), Roger Heinz (Tallahassee), Donnell Livingston (Sarasota), and Brian Rackley (Tallahassee) appreciate those remarks, as well as Bunting recruits Doug Justice (Port Orange) and John DeShields (Boca Raton) and the other Tar Heels on the team from the Sunshine State.
Amato, on the other hand, makes no bones about his desire to recruit the state of Florida, and Bunting is well aware of that. Amato seems to grasp the concept that many of the leftovers of Florida, FSU and Miami are still - unfortunately - more talented than some of the best players from the state of North Carolina. Amato also realizes that success begets success, and if the Pack keeps on winning, he will someday have his pick from the best players in the, ahem, Tar Heel State. Amato's ability to actually beat out the big boys in Florida for players may expedite the process.
Back on the playing field, there has been some fun moments just the past few years. In 2000 - the season before Bunting arrived in Chapel Hill - the jubilant Wolfpack players celebrated at midfield of UNC's Kenan Stadium after defeating Carolina, 38-20. To State fans, the Pack players jumped up and down "House of Pain"-style at midfield - a natural place to meet after a game, not unlike huddling at mid-court of a basketball game. But to UNC supporters, the Pack stomped on the interlocking "NC" logo.
The next season, with Bunting at the helm, the Heels brought up the subject with Bunting saying that if his team won, he would have them run over to the visiting section and sing the school's fight song with their fans. To his credit, that's exactly what happened after UNC won at Carter-Finley, 17-9.
In '02, the topic of post-game celebrations came up again. After State won in Chapel Hill, 34-17, Carolina players ran out to defend their logo - an act that had State supporters - and players - howling with laughter over. QB Philip Rivers even said it appeared that the Heels were more concerned with the logo than the score.
So this Saturday in a raucous Carter-Finley, two old foes (an 0-3 UNC team and a 2-2 State team) will go at it again for bragging rights, while two relatively new foes (Amato and Bunting) will continue to jockey for position among the coaching hierarchy in the state. Almost as exciting is waiting to see what they'll say after the game, win or lose. In some respects, there are no losers in this rivalry, as long as they're around. After all, in this war of words, Amato and Bunting are just getting started, so enjoy the ride.
'Now' ACC Standings
1. Florida State: Seminoles made a decent Colorado
team look bad.
2. NC State: No matter what Chuck Amato says the amount of yards Texas Tech's B.J. Symons threw for should be a concern.
3. Wake Forest: Third straight time the Deacs have feasted on Pirate.
4. Maryland: The Terps showed that maybe West Virginia didn't belong in the ACC after all.
5. Virginia: Cavs got a nice off week to prepare for pesky Wake Forest.
6. Clemson: Purple-clad Tigers (never a good thing for the opponent) thumped the Jekyll and Hyde-like Yellow Jackets.
7. Georgia Tech: Jackets need to regain some confidence - and soon.
8. Duke: Blue Devils get to host the red-hot Seminoles this weekend before heading up to College Park in two weeks.
9. North Carolina: Tar Heels continue to shoot themselves in the foot at inopportune times.
'Later' ACC Standings
2. Florida State
3. Virginia Tech
4. NC State
5. Wake Forest
9. Georgia Tech
11. North Carolina
This Week's Predictions:
North Carolina at NC State: State hasn't beaten Carolina at home in a long, long time. On paper, the Pack should roll. But history - both of the ancient and recent variety - have been on the Tar Heels' side. If NCSU truly hasn't regained confidence since losing to Wake and Ohio State, then this is the game to do it. NC State 42, North Carolina 28
Wake Forest at Virginia: Yeah, it's strange that ABC instead of State-Carolina picked up this game, but you can't blame the network. Wake is one of the best stories in college football so far this season, and the Cavs still have the pieces to make a run at an ACC title. Should be a dandy. Virginia 27, Wake Forest 24
Maryland at Eastern Michigan: Terps are starting to roll, and Eastern Michigan should just get out of the way. Maryland 52, Eastern Michigan 14
Florida State at Duke: If this were hoops, the clever Duke students would probably shower Chris Rix with handicapped parking tags. But, alas, this is football, and Rix will probably just shower the Duke secondary with TD tosses. FSU 38, Duke 10
Georgia Tech at Vanderbilt: Yellow Jackets need this one to stay within the hunt for a chance at a bowl. Tech 21, Vandy 17
Also ... Virginia Tech 35, Connecticut 10!