A Game That Matters – Finally

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The entire collection of North Carolina and N.C. State fans are in for a rare treat on Saturday as the instate rivals square off in a late-season grudge match that actually holds value in the ACC landscape.

If you were wondering about the prominence of the Tar Heels-Wolfpack rivalry on the national level, consider this – before last Saturday's games, N.C. State (7-3, 4-2 ACC) controlled its own destiny in the Atlantic Division and North Carolina (6-4, 3-3 ACC) still had an outside shot at the Coastal Division crown, and ESPN/ABC still passed on picking this weekend's game up for national broadcast.

As much as both fan bases would love for this rivalry to matter beyond the state lines, it hasn't carried any significance in recent history and some would argue that it never has. A noon kickoff on Raycom is quite possibly the antithesis of big-time football.

Two things factor into the absence of prominence in this heated rivalry between schools only 25 miles apart in geography yet continents apart in culture.

While various rivalries are scheduled in stone for the final weekend of the season – Florida State/Florida, Georgia Tech/Georgia, Clemson/South Carolina, Virginia/Virginia Tech to name a few – UNC and NCSU have struggled just to get a November slot. Over the last 50 seasons, these programs have played in the final month of the season just eight times.

And as it turns out, only once in those eight November clashes did both teams enter the game and ultimately finish the season with a winning record – over Thanksgiving weekend in 1998. The Tar Heels outlasted the Wolfpack in Charlotte to win 37-34 in overtime in arguably the series' best game in recent memory.

As exciting as that game may have been – four touchdown plays of 36 yards or more – both teams finished the '98 season with 7-5 records. While that shootout was fun for the local crowd, it was irrelevant on the national stage.

The lack of significant success has plagued this rivalry for decades.

In the past 50 years, North Carolina and N.C. State have both fielded winning teams in just 17 seasons. And in only three of those years did both programs manage three losses or less – 1963, 1972 and 1992. NCSU's Earle Edwards and UNC's Jim Hickey shared the ACC title in '63, and Bill Dooley directed the Tar Heels to a second straight conference title in '72 with an 11-1 mark. Mack Brown (9-3) and Dick Sheridan (9-3-1) posted solid records in '92, but that season welcomed mighty Florida State into the league.

Of those three seasons, the latest that UNC and N.C. State played was Oct. 19 back in '63.

If North Carolina had been able to upset Virginia Tech on Saturday, the stars would have aligned perfectly for possibly the biggest game in modern history between these bitter rivals. But even with the loss to the Hokies, UNC is still alive for a third-straight eight-win regular season record – a feat that hasn't been accomplished in Chapel Hill since Mack Brown won eight or more games from 1992-94.

The more essential detail on Saturday for the Tar Heels is that they can play the role of spoiler for the Wolfpack, who still control their destiny in the Atlantic Division, but the players aren't willing to admit that motivation, at least not publicly.

"That means nothing to me," senior safety Deunta Williams told reporters during Monday's press conference. "All I care about is just beating them. That would be the first time we've done it on Saturday, so I feel like we've got to go out there and just do what we've got to do. It's our last time playing on Kenan Stadium, so there's going to be a lot of emotional type of feelings going on. It's going to be one of those types of games – you've just got to leave it all out there."

This rivalry showdown is also critical for the head coaches.

For O'Brien, a win on Saturday would boost his career record to .500 (51-51) in conference games during his 14 years as a head coach, but more importantly, it would put him within two victories of securing his first outright conference championship and N.C. State's first ACC crown since 1979. After clinching his first winning season in four years in Raleigh, O'Brien can secure his job for years to come with a fourth-straight win over North Carolina.

"They've played very well this season," UNC head coach Butch Davis said. "In my personal opinion, against somebody in this big of a rivalry game, I don't know how much records actually matter… There's an awful lot of the kids that play the game and alumni that are around each other, they know each other and they see each other on a daily basis and so it's obviously going to carry an enormous amount of [significance]."

For Davis, winning six games this season despite enduring 174 combined lost games due to injury or suspension has already bolstered his support within the ranks of the hardcore Tar Heel football fans, but a victory over N.C. State would likely draw even more support from the casual UNC fan watching from the periphery.

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