"We still think we're in this ACC race," UNC fullback Bobby Rome said earlier this week. "Our goal at the beginning of the year wasn't to win seven games, it was to win the ACC and we still think those goals are within reach so we're going to keep practicing hard and keep going."
The most important aspect of that scenario, and the only one that the Tar Heels actually control, is that they need to win their final two instate rivalry clashes against N.C. State and Duke – contests that have provided substantial doses of entertainment this decade.
With a 63-28-6 overall record against N.C. State, the Tar Heels have won 11 of the last 15 in this series, but the Wolfpack won last season, 31-27, in the rivalry coaching debuts of Butch Davis and Tom O'Brien in Raleigh. North Carolina fell behind 17-0 early, but in a foreshadowing of this season's opportunistic defense, Kendric Burney and Charles Brown returned interceptions for touchdowns to keep the Tar Heels close until a late goal line stand by the home team.
Much has been made of the reversal in opinion on the school's sidelines regarding this rivalry. John Bunting's open passion for defeating N.C. State stood in stark contrast to Chuck Amato's refusal to put much weight on the yearly grudge fest. But while Bunting was unable to succeed on the national scale in Chapel Hill, he left his alma mater with a 4-2 record over the Wolfpack.
These days, it's O'Brien that's acknowledging the significance of this game, harkening back to his days involved with arguably the greatest rivalry in college football history – Army vs. Navy.
"Wins are important no matter who [the opponent] is," O'Brien said. "But, as I've said before, there's certain games at certain schools that are certainly more important than others."
Davis has been hesitant to circle this game on his program's schedule, if for no other reason than to approach each game with consistent preparation. But that doesn't mean he's immune to what this rivalry represents for Triangle residents.
"Because of the uniqueness of the rivalry where you have two schools close in proximity, they interact with people from both schools on a daily basis," said Davis, who owns a 4-1 record against O'Brien. "Every time they go to the mall or to the movies or on campus, people are always talking about it, whether it's the week of the game or during the summertime. They're constantly reminded of it."
While North Carolina has been soaking up the regional headlines with 18 interceptions and the nation's eight-best turnover margin (+1.20), N.C. State (4-6, 2-4 ACC) has slowly overcome early-season injuries behind the play of red-shirt freshman quarterback Russell Wilson to win its last two games against Duke and Wake Forest. The Richmond, Va. native has completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 1,166 yards and 12 touchdowns during his last six games and ranks second in the league in passing efficiency (127.0).
"They've run the ball extremely well, and certainly their quarterback's performance, especially over the last couple of games, he's been highly effective," said Davis, whose squad is 9-3 at Kenan Stadium. "He's not throwing interceptions, they're able to move the chains an awful lot because of his running ability."
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, are not telling which quarterback will start on Saturday, even though the team has been practicing with either T.J. Yates (164.4 pass efficiency rating) or Cam Sexton (132.7) getting the bulk of snaps during practice this week. Davis indicated that the reason for not releasing the starter's name was to keep the media circus to a minimum.
"I don't know who they are going to choose to play but certainly they are going to choose who they think gives them the best chance to win, which tells you they think he is probably the more talented guy," O'Brien said.
Regardless of who starts under center for North Carolina, expect junior wideout Hakeem Nicks (53 receptions for 911 yards and 8 TD) to serve in a crucial role against the ACC's worst pass defense (249.8 yards allowed per game).
Rarely has this rivalry meant so much on the field, as N.C. State is hoping to derail North Carolina's shot at an ACC Championship Game birth while the Tar Heels are banking on dealing the Wolfpack its seventh loss of the season and a losing record for the third straight season.
"They are real competitive," senior wide receiver Cooter Arnold said. "To them it's like a championship game for them to beat us. And right now, with the way we're going, they're looking to mess up what we've got going and we're not going to let them do that."
Kickoff is set for noon on Saturday (Raycom).