At this point, is there anyone left who isn’t personally involved with the North Carolina program who expects the Tar Heels to win on Saturday?
It’s maybe the one place where N.C. State and UNC fans can find agreement – especially the latter, looking forward to the merciful end of this dismal, abbreviated season, if not the end of endless speculation over Larry Fedora’s future until he inevitably gets one more crack at turning things around next August.
N.C. State is expected to win and, as a 7-3 team facing a 2-8 team, really should win.
But things do not always go as planned or expected in this rivalry, right down to goal-line stands and punt returns.
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A North Carolina win would wipe out the potential for months of hand-wringing over Fedora, who even with a loss to N.C. State will be a difficult coach for Bubba Cunningham to fire.
North Carolina is about four plays away from being 5-5 right now, thanks to a goal-line fumble against Virginia Tech, a double-overtime loss to Syracuse and a one-touchdown loss to Duke. There’s a lot of “Poor Stilman” in Nathan Elliott, a likeable player asked to do too much, like Stilman White in 2012. By next year, whether it’s Kelly Bryant or Cade Fortin or Jace Ruder, the Tar Heels may have a more dynamic player at quarterback in an offense that’s built around that concept.
If North Carolina isn’t far off, as Fedora insists that evidence would indicate, Saturday is a chance to prove it. But probably not his last, no matter the growing level of fan discontent. The narrow margins, the potential for improvement at quarterback and a defense that still struggles to tackle at times but also isn’t lacking for talent all argue in favor of Fedora’s return, as much if not more than his gargantuan buyout and the fact that Cunningham both hired him and relied upon him to get the program through some difficult times.
Regardless, with a win, the discussion is tabled until sometime next fall. This one game may not be a referendum on Fedora, but it’s certainly a referendum on the level of continuing discussion over his job status. Getting his record above .500 against N.C. State wouldn’t hurt, either.
Which isn’t to say N.C. State doesn’t have as much at stake, even if it appears likely to end up in Orlando no matter what happens. For a program that’s won more than nine games only once in its history, a potential 10-win season is nothing to easily dismiss.
North Carolina is only three years removed from its most recent 10-win season, one that had many similarities to this N.C. State season, with a gaudy record but the absence of a really good win and at least one baffling loss, the opener against South Carolina serving as North Carolina’s Wake Forest.
That seems like a long time ago now, and the program’s slide back into irrelevance has cast a pall over not only this game but the upcoming offseason, to the point where Fedora’s status has become an all-encompassing issue, completely overshadowing this game.
One more win would at least change the conversation. One more loss, even to N.C. State, probably isn’t enough to overcome the inherent resistance to making a change now, although it would certainly set an ugly tone for next year.