Bragging rights are on the line Saturday. That’s beyond obvious. Hurt feelings linger from a year ago. The trash talk started early this week. There’s no love lost between North Carolina and N.C. State, nor would anyone expect otherwise.
There’s more than that at stake though. Both teams are 6-5. The winner guarantees a winning record on the season and has a chance to win eight games. The loser faces a potential bowl loss and 6-7 finish. That’s no small distinction, although it does depend on perspective.
For N.C. State, a win would provide validation. The Wolfpack’s best win is over 8-3 Georgia Southern, the likely Sun Belt champion, and one of its six wins was over Presbyterian, an FCS opponent. The other four came against FBS teams with a combined 15-29 record.
But it’s impossible to get around the fact that N.C. State has beaten bad teams and lost to good ones. The combined record of the five teams that have wins against the Wolfpack is 42-13.
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A win over North Carolina wouldn’t improve the collective record of the Wolfpack’s vanquished, but it would be a win over a bowl-bound team from a Power Five conference. That column would be otherwise empty.
“Obviously beating them makes the seventh pretty special, right?” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “Our goal was to get into a bowl game and win that bowl. Another one of our goals is to beat everybody in-state, and that’s another part of what this is. … Who wouldn’t want to have seven instead of six, right? But that doesn’t define the improvement we’ve made.”
As for North Carolina, the Tar Heels came into the season with high hopes and, for the second straight year, needed a second-half surge just to get above .500. Six wins would unquestionably represent regression. Eight would represent progress, even if it reinforces the eight-win ceiling North Carolina has had so much trouble clearing.
Considering where North Carolina was at the start of the year – 2-4, with that brutally harsh loss to East Carolina an undeniable low point – the Tar Heels came dangerously close to winning the Coastal Division. Had the Tar Heels beaten Virginia Tech, at home, they would have had a chance to finish 6-2 in the division while holding the tiebreaker over eventual champion Georgia Tech.
The chance to knock off both Duke and N.C. State in consecutive weeks would be quite a consolation prize.
“It’s actually fun,” North Carolina linebacker Norkeithus Otis said. “You get to play two good schools that’s your rival, that are right down the road.”
The fringe benefit to being 7-5 as opposed to 6-6, for either team, is bowl positioning. There’s a chance, albeit no guarantee, that the 7-5 victor will end up eligible for one of the ACC’s Tier I bowls, destinations that could potentially include Charlotte, New York, Nashville, Tenn., or Jacksonville, Fla. The loser is definitely headed for Tier II.
How much does that matter? It depends on whether your goal was to get to a prestigious bowl, or any bowl at all. In either case, it’ll all be secondary to the rivalry at hand.