The 2007 game – the first in the rivalry for both Butch Davis and Tom O'Brien – pitted two teams with losing records against one another. But the losses in '08 and '09 to N.C. State relegated North Carolina to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte while victories would have delivered higher-profile postseason opportunities.
These bitter rivals will switch roles this weekend as the Wolfpack (7-3, 4-2 ACC) remains in contention for the Atlantic Division crown, but a loss to UNC on Saturday would force the boys in red to become diehard Maryland fans later in the evening as Florida State travels to College Park. A N.C. State loss and a FSU win would earn the Seminoles a spot in the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 4.
"There's not anymore on the line than any time that we play North Carolina," O'Brien said. "It's a game that's very special and very important to our school. It's important to our student body, it's important to our faculty and our alumni. There's no added significance one way or another. Now, the bonus is if we win we keep going, but we're still playing against North Carolina."
The Tar Heels are intent on reversing their fortunes against the Wolfpack, although there is some debate surrounding the reason for the current three-game skid against their rivals. Senior free safety Deunta Williams indicated earlier this week that UNC needs to take the game more personally, while senior quarterback T.J. Yates believes the opposite applies.
"We've made it too much about State and not enough about us," Yates said. "I think we've put too much emphasis on it as far as players and coaches, and we need to get back to just playing football."
Regardless of emotion, two things have to occur for North Carolina to notch its seventh win of the season on Saturday.
First, the Tar Heels have to protect the football. UNC's ranks No. 66 nationally with a minus-0.2 turnover margin and has coughed up 14 turnovers in its four losses. Six of those turnovers occurred in last weekend's loss to Virginia Tech.
"Cleary the turnovers are just killers," UNC head coach Butch Davis said. "If you turn the ball over six times and don't create any it is almost impossible to win the game."
Secondly, North Carolina has to figure out a way to slow down Russell Wilson (234-of-393 passing, 2,814 yards, 22 TD, 12 INT). The junior quarterback has completed 37 of his 55 passes (67.3 percent) for 538 yards and six touchdowns against North Carolina, guiding the Wolfpack to a 41-10 victory at Kenan Stadium in '08 before rallying his team from a 10-point deficit last season to claim a 28-27 win in Raleigh.
"I think my freshman and sophomore year we capitalized on opportunities and we stayed on the field and made plays," Wilson said. "Guys stepped up with some big plays. Both of those games were great games, and Carolina, you have to give them credit. They have a great defense, a great offense and they are playing well. But at the same time, we have to capitalize on our opportunities and play the game the right way."
North Carolina will counter with a defense that has been solid across the board, especially considering the massive losses due to injury and suspension throughout the year. Davis campaigned for defensive coordinator Everett Withers to win the Frank Broyles Award – given to the nation's top assistant – earlier this week, saying, ‘If [he] doesn't win it, they should never give out that award again."
The Tar Heels rank 45th in scoring defense (22.7 ppg) , 46th nationally in total defense (351.2 ypg) and 47th in pass efficiency defense (122.85), in addition to being tied for 21st nationally with 13 interceptions.
On the other side of the ball, Yates (198-of-304 passing, 2,509 yards, 15 TD, 8 INT) will be looking to rebound from his four-interception display against the Hokies against a N.C. State secondary that ranks No. 26 nationally in pass defense (190.2 ypg) and No. 63 in pass efficiency defense (126.03). The Wolfpack are tied with Duke and Wake Forest for the second-fewest interceptions in the ACC (8).
For Yates to be successful, offensive coordinator John Shoop must find a way for Dwight Jones to make an impact. The junior wide receiver hauled in eight catches for a career-high 233 yards and a touchdown in the upset victory over Florida State two weeks ago, but Virginia Tech held him to just four yards on one catch last Saturday.
A win on Saturday will secure North Carolina's third-straight winning season and will move the Tar Heels to within one game of posting eight wins in '10. That would give UNC its third-straight eight-win season, marking the first time that has happened since Mack Brown accomplished that feat from 1992-94.