N.C. State is one game ahead of North Carolina in the win column, but the two football programs aren't even close in the 2011 recruiting rankings.
Recruiting analysts at Rivals .com and Scout.com rank the Tar Heels (6-4, 3-3 ACC) in the top 10 nationally, based on the players who have committed verbally already.
Heading into Saturday's noon meeting of the in-state rivals in Chapel Hill, N.C. State (7-3, 4-2) is ranked last in the ACC by the same two recruiting sites.
"They're kind of on polar ends of the spectrum," said Miller Safrit, Scout.com's regional recruiting analyst. "But you never really know what's going to happen, especially when the NCAA stuff happens. I think that's probably going to have a lot bigger bearing on the outcome for either school than the game will on Saturday."
After NCAA investigators arrived at UNC in July, Rivals .com analyst Mike Farrell expected the Tar Heels to have some difficulty landing recruits and maintaining the loyalty of players who already had committed to the program. So far, however, that hasn't happened.
National signing day isn't until Feb. 2, so players are free to change their minds if they are afraid North Carolina will receive NCAA program sanctions that would prevent them from playing in a bowl game, for example.
A few committed players have checked out other options. North Carolina has 19 players committed, according to Scout.com. In addition to those 19, two other "soft verbals," safety Brandon Ellerbe of Wadesboro and quarterback Everett Golson of Myrtle Beach, S.C., have visited or will visit other schools.
Mallard Creek quarterback Marquise Williams has visited other schools, including N.C. State, but he said last week that his commitment to UNC is firm. He said he is closely monitoring the NCAA investigation of the Tar Heels, but isn't having second thoughts, and plans to enroll at UNC in January.
Many recruits haven't wavered in their preference of North Carolina even though John Blake, the program's recruiting coordinator and associate head coach, resigned after the school learned that he had accepted money - characterized by his lawyers as "gifts" or "loans" - from sports agent Gary Wichard.
Fourteen UNC players have missed at least one game, and half of them were held out for the entire season because of violations discovered in the joint NCAA and UNC probe of impermissible benefits and academic misconduct.
But Tar Heels coach Butch Davis said recruits only hear about possible program sanctions from recruiters at rival schools.
"I think a lot of our recruits are very frustrated with the amount of misinformation and things people are saying that really have zero credibility," Davis said.
Program sanctions are possible for UNC, though, school officials have acknowledged. UNC chancellor Holden Thorp and athletic director Dick Baddour said Thursday that the investigative phase of the probe is nearly complete. They said the NCAA will decide whether to sanction the program and did not offer a prediction of what the NCAA would decide.
Thorp told the UNC Board of Trustees on Thursday that Davis and Baddour would remain with the program after this season.
Baddour said that when coaches talk to recruits, they talk about their commitment to the football program, academic success and doing things the right way.
"You acknowledge that there is a significant issue as viewed by the NCAA and how we've handled it," Baddour said. "You try to give them some confidence that the way we've handled it makes a difference. What we are going to do in terms of the future of this program makes a difference, and we can't predict what's going to happen on that."
N.C. State's 2011 recruiting has been hurt by the program's struggles before 2010 under coach Tom O'Brien, analysts say. The Wolfpack posted losing records in 2007, 2008 and 2009 under O'Brien, and there was an outside perception that O'Brien needed to win in 2010 to keep his job.
That's no longer an issue with N.C. State a pair of regular-season wins away from securing a spot in the ACC championship game. But just 10 players have committed verbally to the Wolfpack, and none of them are rated above three stars on the five-star scales posted by Rivals.com and Scout.com.
"A lot of it had to do with not a lot of trust in how long the coaching staff would be there going into the season," Safrit said.
Farrell said N.C. State might not see the effects of its on-field success until the 2012 recruiting class, because so many top recruits have committed already.
O'Brien doesn't sound concerned, however. He never has put much stock in recruiting rankings.
Because N.C. State has a small senior class this season, O'Brien said he doesn't expect to sign a large class anyway in 2011. He projects a class of about 16 signees.
"I think we're doing fine," O'Brien said. "We went slow this year because of numbers that we started out with."
Staff writer Langston Wertz contributed to this report.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-8942