CHAPEL HILL — The countdown began the day the ACC released its 2012 football schedule, but really it started Dec. 9, 2011, when North Carolina introduced Larry Fedora as its new head coach.
How many times since then had Fedora heard about the significance of UNCs game against N.C. State? How many times had he been reminded of the Tar Heels five-game losing streak? How many times had this game come up during his conversations with fans, students, boosters, alumni?
I cannot tell you how many, Fedora said earlier this week. I mean, I couldnt count them. Its probably, if I meet somebody new, I can tell you itd be every day. So its something that our fans, theyve made it aware to me what they would like to happen.
Fedora first realized the magnitude of the rivalry with N.C. State, he said, on his first day. UNC introduced him 323 days ago. Eleven months later, the Wolfpack finally are visiting Kenan Stadium.
Games between UNC and N.C. State rarely lack for intensity. Not among the players and coaches. Not among the fans. Yet for the Tar Heels and their supporters, this might be more important than any in recent history.
UNC has lost five consecutive games in this series but has never lost six consecutive times against N.C. State. The on-the-field misery during the past five years has been bad enough. Yet N.C. State fans have taken plenty of satisfaction and, at times, an active role in UNCs recent troubles off the field, too.
Amid the NCAAs investigation into impermissible benefits and academic fraud within the UNC football program, N.C. State fans on the website PackPride.com an outlet that covers Wolfpack sports first uncovered the plagiarism that led to the dismissal of Michael McAdoo, a former defensive end at UNC.
More recently, Wolfpack fans on the PackPride message boards first identified the public link to a transcript belonging to Julius Peppers, the NFL All-Pro defensive end who played football and basketball at UNC. The transcript raised questions about Peppers poor academic record and how he remained eligible.
The message board drama has added another element to a rivalry that has never lacked for passion especially on the part of a faction of N.C. State fans who have long believed, whether real or imagined, that UNC has received preferential treatment from the NCAA, the media and others.
Brian Barbour, who runs the popular tarheelblog.com a website devoted UNC athletics is familiar with the back-and-forth.
As far as State fans go, theyve done a pretty good job of digging up things that are actually true but also driving the story, Barbour said. This has really got to a point where fan bases are tipping off the local media. And whats interesting, though, you read Inside Carolina, they talk about doing stuff like this. But no one ever does it.
Similar to PackPride.com, InsideCarolina.com is a website that covers UNC athletics. Fedora smiled earlier this week when asked about the message board wars, and said that sort of thing happens everywhere.
His players, quarterback Bryn Renner, for one, professed ignorance.
They can do all that that they want to, UNC offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper said of the proclivity N.C. State fans have shown for mining the Internet in search of embarrassing revelations about UNC. But our main focus is winning the football game. All that other stuff, it will be of no consequence to us.
So let them do whatever they feel is necessary.
UNC wants to reclaim the state
Cooper, a native of Wilmington, has several friends at N.C. State. Those friends, he said, have enjoyed reminding him of the Wolfpacks recent dominance.
Then again, itd be difficult for any UNC player to forget. When the Tar Heels arrived at the Kenan Football Center on Sunday, the day after they suffered a 33-30 defeat at Duke, they discovered their locker room had been decorated in red. N.C. State paraphernalia hung from the walls. Reminders of the five-game losing streak were everywhere.
Fedora and his staff hung the decorations, which included red and white balloons and streamers, as a motivational tactic. Players received the message as soon as they walked in. Other reminders have come in more subtle fashion.
Cornerback Jabari Price, for example, has taken notice of certain billboards that N.C. State has used in a recent marketing campaign.
Driving around, you see, This is Our State, Price said. And its a lot of things that go on, as far as N.C. State trying to get at us.
Price accepts the billboards, yet wants to be a part of something like a victory Saturday that might restore some pride among his teammates and fans.
They deserve it, Price said of those billboards. We havent played like its our state in the past five years, if you ask me. So I feel like this year we can take it over, take it back make it our state.
Wolfpack safety Earl Wolff said this isnt the time to let up.
Im not going to lie and say there isnt talk about not being on the team that loses to Carolina, Wolff said. Since my senior year when I was recruited, we havent lost against them. So it would be huge to keep that going (and) get to six in a row.
Its going down on Saturday. Theres going to be some fireworks.
N.C. State hasnt experienced this dominant of a run against North Carolina since the late 1980s and 1990s. The Wolfpack won five consecutive games in the rivalry, too, from 1988-1992.
Rick Steinbacher, the former Tar Heels linebacker and now a radio color analyst on the Tar Heels Sports Network, arrived in Chapel Hill near the start of that streak. For four years, he experienced defeats against the Wolfpack.
Then, in his senior season, he helped UNC beat State 35-14 a victory that ignited the Heels seven-game winning streak in the series. Given his history, Steinbacher doesnt view Saturdays game as one UNC fans want more, per se. They want them all, always, he said.
But Fedoras approach to the rivalry, the way he has counted down the days, has reminded Steinbacher of how his coach, Mack Brown, approached the series and in-state games.
I think Larry has taken a very similar approach to what Mack Brown did when he was here, Steinbacher said. Mack would always talk to us about the state championship. And I remember at first, we didnt quite get that, because thats always a term thats more of a high school football term. But he would educate us in team meetings.
With defeats against Duke and Wake Forest already, UNC cant win the state championship this season. The Tar Heels cant go to a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions. And even if it were to finish atop the Coastal Division, the ACC announced it wouldnt recognize UNC as divisional champions.
Beating N.C. State, then, and ending the five-game losing streak, would likely be the Tar Heels most significant accomplishment this season. Its not lost on Fedora, who has spoken openly of the importance of defeating the Wolfpack. Its not lost on a group of fans, boosters and alumni who have grown tired of defeats on the field, and embarrassment, mockery and drama off of it.