Usually around this time of the year, when they’re preparing to play N.C. State, North Carolina football players hear about the game when they’re out and about. UNC fans might tell them to beat State, classmates might remind them of the importance of the rivalry.
This year, though, it has been a bit different.
“Because every time we go somewhere all we hear is, ‘Good luck against Clemson,’” Dajuan Drennon, the Tar Heels’ defensive end, said after practice on Wednesday. “So I’m like, I guess you’re forgetting about the game we have against State this week coming up.”
Drennon hasn’t been correcting people, though.
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“No,” he said. “I just say, ‘Thank you,’ and keep it moving.”
Probably easier that way, than to explain to the well-wishers that, actually, Clemson is the second game of a critically-important two-game stretch for UNC – perhaps its most important two-game stretch in about 20 years.
On Saturday, the Tar Heels will have a chance to win the mythical state championship that they’ve been talking about all season. The next Saturday they’ll have a chance to win the ACC when they play against Clemson in the league championship game.
But, as has been the case throughout the past several months, it’s first things first at UNC. And so the focus, from coach Larry Fedora on down, has been the game on Saturday against the Wolfpack at N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium.
But what, then, of the ACC championship game? Can the Tar Heels simply wait until next week before they start thinking about Clemson? Not exactly.
“We’re doing exactly what we do – the (graduate assistant coaches) are always one week ahead,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said on Wednesday. “They’re always a week ahead. So on Sunday, just like this past Sunday, we came in and everything was ready for the team we’re playing this week.
“So it’ll be the same way. We don’t change.”
That means that when UNC convenes on Sunday after its game at N.C. State, everything it will need to begin preparing for Clemson will be in order. Then the fun part begins: developing a game plan and strategy for the undefeated Tigers, who are No. 1 in the College Football Playoff Rankings.
Not that Fedora would admit to knowing that. Earlier this week, he professed not to know even when his team’s game against N.C. State was on Saturday. He was that busy amid his preparations for the Wolfpack.
Fedora knows his team faces a challenge, what with a rivalry game and a conference championship game coming up on back-to-back weekends. But ask him about that challenge and he's not exactly comfortable talking about it.
“I don't know,” Fedora said when asked how unique a challenge his team will face the next two weekends, with the ACC Championship game looming. “I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m just worried about this game. Because I’m not paying any attention to the other one. And we’re not as a team.
“So all we’ve talked about is this – I mean, we haven’t even broached the subject.”
Fedora, on his coaching staff, has the resource of someone who has gone through something similar. Gene Chizik, the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator, is familiar with preparing a team for an intense rivalry game and then a conference championship game a week later.
Chizik did it at Auburn during the 2010 season, when the Tigers ended the regular season with a one-point victory against Alabama, and then defeated South Carolina the next week in the SEC Championship game.
“It’s a challenge,” Chizik said. “There’s no doubt about it. And the mindset that you have to have is just different than most teams. Our season isn’t over next week. And so most people’s are – in terms of other than a bowl game. So mentally you’ve just got to prepare yourself for that.
“This is going to be two extremely physical back-to-back weeks.”
Fedora and his staff, though, are only concerned now with the first of those weeks – and the game on Saturday against N.C. State. Some of UNC’s graduate assistant coaches are looking ahead to Clemson, breaking down film, watching for tendencies, looking for an advantage.
Whatever they put together will be ready on Sunday for Fedora and his assistants. Until then, UNC’s focus is on what’s coming on Saturday, even though some are already wishing the Tar Heels well for what comes after.