RALEIGH — Even the prospect of a trip to the ACC championship game doesn't trump the importance of N.C. State's biggest rivalry for Wolfpack football coach Tom O'Brien.
O'Brien said Monday at his weekly news conference that it's a "bonus" that N.C. State will remain in position to claim the ACC Atlantic Division title if it wins Saturday at North Carolina in a game that kicks off at noon (WRAL, WFXI).
But the rivalry with UNC doesn't take a back seat to ACC title implications for the Wolfpack. N.C. State (7-3, 4-2 ACC) needs to win its final two games - at North Carolina (6-4, 3-3) and on Nov. 27 at Maryland - to be assured of a trip to the ACC title game on Dec. 4 in Charlotte.
"That's the carrot to win the game, to get to the ACC championship," O'Brien said. "As I said Saturday, the road to Charlotte goes through Chapel Hill. You have to get through Chapel Hill. Well, if you're at N.C. State and you're part of this football program, you have to win in Chapel Hill anyway.
"It's something that is part of the culture here. We accept that fact and our kids have really risen to the occasion, have played well anytime we've played against North Carolina since I've been here."
This year's game has a different tone than any of the others because of the ongoing NCAA investigation at North Carolina.
Fourteen Tar Heels players have missed at least one game because of the probe of impermissible agent benefits and academic misconduct at the school. Eight players are out for the season, and six were cleared to return to the field.
Four of the eight out for the season were ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA, including Devon Ramsey and Michael McAdoo on Monday.
"First off, I don't think you ever want to see anybody in our conference in that situation," O'Brien said, "because I believe we pride ourselves [in NCAA compliance] in the ACC, and I don't know what the outcome is, other than there seems to be something over there going on.
"Second of all, anytime you have an agent thing, I think, certainly you have to evaluate what you're doing and look at what your [own] program is doing, if you're doing the right things as far as protecting your players and educating them and making sure that you're doing the best you can."
N.C. State is 3-0 against North Carolina since O'Brien and the Tar Heels' Butch Davis took over as coaches in 2007. O'Brien has often emphasized the importance of this rivalry and others to the Pack.
In 2008, he proclaimed N.C. State the state champion after the Pack swept UNC, Wake Forest, Duke and ECU. Talking to N.C. State's players, there's little doubt that the game against the Tar Heels means the most to them.
Earlier this month, N.C. State linemen Jeff Rieskamp and Jake Vermiglio admitted they had qualms about cheering for North Carolina against Florida State even though the Tar Heels' win on Nov. 6 put the Wolfpack back in control of the Atlantic Division.
N.C. State linebacker Nate Irving predicted that players from both teams will be talking trash through the media throughout the week.
"It's a rival game," Irving said. "I can't say that it's just a regular game."
Irving was cautious with his words on Monday, but his demeanor cracked a bit when he was asked to choose his favorite win over the Heels.
He enjoyed the 41-10 decision in 2008 the most.
"Beating them in their house, seeing their stands empty and just red in the corner, celebrating, it felt kind of good," Irving said.
Winning a rivalry game usually does.
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