CHAPEL HILL — If this isn't a rivalry, and there may be North Carolina fans who will continue to insist that it is not even after Saturday's epic confrontation with N.C. State, it sure feels like one.
It looks like one, smells like one and acts like one, and the Wolfpack's 29-25 win had everything anyone could ever ask of a bitter, heartfelt rivalry between two teams with bowl eligibility already safely secured.
While N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien fired up his fan base this week with "you have to win in Chapel Hill" rhetoric, North Carolina coach Butch Davis was downplaying the rivalry with his "just another game" position.
O'Brien had the last word after the Wolfpack's fourth straight win over the Tar Heels.
"Well, just another State-Carolina football game," O'Brien said, his eyes alight.
Which means it was far more than just another game. It was 10 pounds of football in a five-pound bag. Whatever a rivalry game is supposed to have, this had it.
The pivotal play in the game was not only disputed but open to interpretation, and it was immediately followed by a scuffle that saw two players ejected. It had to be the shortest Hail Mary touchdown ever, a 2-yard pass on fourth-and-goal that N.C. State's Owen Spencer collected off a deflection after a prolonged Russell Wilson scramble in the other direction.
"That's the story of our season so far," said North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney, who single-handedly stopped N.C. State on first- and second-and-goal. "We just had a little bad luck, and Russell made a great play. A tipped ball that goes into a receiver's hands isn't going to happen much, and you just have to give them credit for executing that lucky play."
There were dizzying swings of momentum, critical two-point conversions, onside kicks with the game on the line - two, actually - an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown and a safety that clinched the win for N.C. State.
North Carolina could have blown the game open in the third quarter with a TD or two but settled for field goals; a false-start penalty turned a potential win-sealing N.C. State touchdown into a field goal that left the outcome in doubt.
So North Carolina had a chance to win it at the end, with 36 seconds left, no timeouts and 95 yards to go.
Stiff odds, but hardly impossible considering T.J. Yates already had thrown for 411 yards at that point and the way the game had gone. It ended with a sack for a safety, making this the third of N.C. State's four straight wins to be decided by single digits.
"This has to be the greatest rivalry in college football the last four years," Spencer said. "The point margin has been so small, any play - a first down, another catch - can change the momentum of the game."
Spencer was part of the fourth set of seniors at N.C. State to go their entire careers without a loss to North Carolina. Two teams won three straight before the advent of freshman eligibility - from 1956-58 and 1967-69 - and N.C. State won five straight from 1988-92. ("We can't do anything about that until next year," O'Brien quipped.)
That cuts two ways, and the North Carolina seniors who never beat N.C. State were honored for other accomplishments after the final home game of their careers, most notably securing a third straight bowl berth.
"These seniors," Davis said, "they have made football relevant at North Carolina again."
And if there was ever any doubt, Saturday's game made North Carolina's rivalry with N.C. State relevant again. It was never "just a game." It was a Big Game, capital B, capital G. There's no disputing that now.