Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. NCSU

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 24 North Carolina travels to West Raleigh with full intentions of breaking archrival N.C. State's two-game winning streak in this series. While the Tar Heels are playing to improve their bowl position, the Wolfpack are playing for their program's pride.

The Tar Heels (8-3, 4-3 ACC) enter Saturday's contest as a 5.5-point favorite over the Wolfpack (4-7, 1-6 ACC). UNC owns a 63-29-6 all-time record against its neighbors in West Raleigh and has won five of the last seven in this series at Carter-Finley Stadium.

This rivalry has seen a dramatic shift since Butch Davis and Tom O'Brien were brought into to replace John Bunting and Chuck Amato three years ago. O'Brien has assumed Bunting's role of playing up the rivalry to his fan base in the wake of three straight losing seasons, while Davis is intent on approaching each ball game with a NFL mentality that wipes the name off opposing teams' jerseys.

But Davis acknowledged the significance of this contest ever so slightly on Wednesday, saying, "As it is pretty much all around the country, it's rivalry weekend."

While that may not sound like much, it's one of the few hints available that UNC's third-year head coach is taking this game a little more seriously than in past years. Granted, it helps that O'Brien opted for some smack talk following his team's 41-10 throttling of the Tar Heels last November in claiming that his program was the best in the state.

The third-year N.C. State head coach has asked about those comments earlier this week, and he refused to back off.

"No, we were the state champions," O'Brien said. "It was matter of fact."

Davis has never been one to play that game in the media and refused to bite when his adversary's words were brought up on Monday, saying, "Those kinds of things certainly are resolved every single season. Every season is an entity into itself."

There's little doubt that UNC's players have taken offense to O'Brien's claim, using that bulletin board material as a reminder all week long.

"Especially for a big game like this, we always have some stuff up on the board in the locker room and the weight room to kind of give us a little extra motivation," UNC quarterback T.J. Yates said. "That'll definitely add a little fuel to the fire for us."

But while the Tar Heels are hoping to improve their bowl position and post a 10-win season for the first time since 1997, the Wolfpack are hoping to send their seniors out with a victory after losing six of their last seven games.

"This has been a disappointing season," NCSU safety Bobby Floyd said. "We really want to go out on a good note and send seniors out. I'm one of them. I'd really like to end my career here with a win over Carolina and beat them three years in a row. That would be a great way to go out, in my opinion."

The 99th edition of this heated rivalry will showcase N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson (204-of-351 passing for 2,768 yards, 27 TD, 11 INT) against North Carolina's vaunted defense (15.9 ppg, 261.6 ypg ).

The Tar Heels have held eight opponents to fewer than 20 points this year and forced 22 turnovers in the last six games. The Wolfpack defense (31.6 ppg, 100th nationally) has created 12 turnovers all season long.

"Defense is the one thing that can be consistent," Davis said. "You may not catch the ball or throw the ball as well. There's a lot of variables that may happen, and you can't control the weather.

"There's been some games where we've played well offensively, but certainly the defense has been the one rock we've been able to count on."

T.J. Yates (182-of-304 passing for 1,673 yards, 10 TD, 13 INT) has endured a roller coaster junior season in Chapel Hill, failing to take care of the ball at key times while also delivering in the clutch in other spots. Having a healthy Ryan Houston (bruised quad) back will allow offensive coordinator John Shoop to work on the clock and chew up yardage against a N.C. State defense that is giving up 137.3 rushing yards per game.

The interesting facet of this matchup resides in Yates' performance against the putrid Wolfpack secondary, which ranks 93rd nationally with a 138.5 pass efficiency defense rating (18 TD, 7 INT).

Kickoff is set for noon on ESPN2.

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