A Rivalry of Relevance?

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The North Carolina-N.C. State rivalry resumes for its 98th edition on Saturday in a game that rarely carries any more significance than just local bragging rights. But with two proven coaches at the helm of each school, can they elevate this rivalry to importance on the national stage?

History would suggest not. In the past 40 years, North Carolina and N.C. State have both fielded winning teams in just 16 seasons. And in only two of those years did both programs manage three losses or less – 1972 and 1992.

Both schools can now argue that their commitment to fielding a legitimate ACC Championship contender has never been higher – new facilities, increased donations, and most importantly, proven head coaches at the Division I level. Therein lies the most important variable in determining success. It should come as no surprise that the coaches at UNC and NCSU in 1972 and 1992 were arguably the best either program has ever had – Bill Dooley vs. Lou Holtz and Mack Brown vs. Dick Sheridan.

And that's where Davis and O'Brien come into play. Both men are excellent coaches. Davis rebuilt Miami into a powerhouse in the late 1990s, during the same time that O'Brien was beginning to average 8.5 wins a year at Boston College following two initial 4-7 seasons.

"It seems like with N.C. State having a new coach, and Coach Davis being our new head coach, it's kind of refreshed the rivalry a little bit," UNC fullback Bobby Rome said during Monday's press conference. "Both teams have great talent, and you just want to see great football again."

The fact that these two programs are only 25 miles apart lends to the intense feelings surrounding the rivalry, as fans and alums go to the same churches and their children attend the same schools.

"It's so unique because the proximity of the two schools…," said Davis, whose Tar Heels own a 63-28-6 edge in the series. "When you play a huge rivalry game, it doesn't really matter where it falls along the schedule. It's certainly going to get all of the kids' attention."

But while the fan bases place an inordinate amount of passion and time in this rivalry, one of the indications that these programs are in good hands is that the respective coaching staffs do not. Worrying about other teams or players does nothing but take away time from your own squad.

"You're building your team to what you think gives you a chance to be a champion, whether it's conference champion or national champion," Davis said. "You don't look at the landscape. I don't follow all of the other schools. I worry about our recruiting, I worry about our relationship with our kids [and] I worry about our assistant coaches and what we're doing in this program, because we can't control anybody else… If we do what we're supposed to, the future will take care of itself."

But it's important to note the reasons both programs haven't excelled in the same seasons. When Brown was leading the Tar Heels to a 10-2 record in 1996, Mike O'Cain's best effort ended in a 3-8 campaign. And when Chuck Amato directed the Wolfpack to an 11-3 mark in 2002, John Bunting stumbled to a 3-9 season.

A number of variables come into play, but there has traditionally been one constant through the years – recruiting. The state of North Carolina doesn't compare to Georgia, Florida, Texas or even Virginia in high school talent level. And while some may make the case that with five FBS schools inside this state's borders there's simply not enough talent to go around, the fact of the matter is that UNC and NCSU rarely lose recruiting battles to Wake Forest, Duke and East Carolina.

Brown's ability to reign supreme in N.C. recruiting lifted North Carolina to the top-10 in the national rankings, while Amato's Italian singing captivated the state's youth during his early years. Now, for two head coaches that have won more than they've lost, recruiting will once again play a role in determining which program challenges for an ACC crown the quickest.

Davis arrived in Chapel Hill with a brand name and a stronger foundation than that which O'Brien found when he moved to Raleigh. UNC signed the No. 25 recruiting class in 2006, compared to NCSU's 42nd-ranked group, and Davis' first class in '07 ranked 14th to O'Brien's 60th-rated bunch. The 2008 recruiting classes were essentially even.

Davis told reporters on Monday that his staff was "going to canvass this entire state for the best players in North Carolina," and O'Brien has initiated a similar approach in West Raleigh.

There's no denying that Davis' track record has been to out-talent his opponent, while O'Brien's history shows an ability to coach up lesser-known players. UNC has locked up four of N.C.'s Top-10 recruits and currently leads for three others. Despite a portion of the Wolfpack fan base beginning to downplay the significance of recruiting rankings, it's disconcerting that N.C. State is currently looking at missing out on a member of the state's Top-10, according to Scout.com, for the third time in four years.

Regardless, the end results on the field are what ultimately matters, and both fan bases have reason for optimism. Both teams have been competitive against top-10 nationally-ranked schedules, according to USA Today's Jeff Sagarin, despite significant injuries and youth saturating their depth charts. North Carolina's two-deep currently includes 22 underclassmen, while N.C. State's lists 20.

And there's no guarantee that both programs will morph into better versions of their current selves. Some Tar Heel fans constantly fret over whether or not Davis will remain in Chapel Hill long enough to build a national championship contender, while O'Brien detractors point to his overall losing record (42-43) in conference games during his 12 years as a head coach.

Both teams are still in contention to exceed the media's preseason prognostications – UNC to contend for the ACC Championship Game and N.C. State to earn a bowl bid – but one of those objectives comes to an end on Saturday. But if the administrations and fan bases have it their way, this game will eventually occur twice in the same season. Once in the regular season, and once in the title game.


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