Saturday may not be the first meeting of ranked North Carolina and Duke teams since 1939, but the essential football calculus of the game did not change when Duke lost to Miami last weekend.
It’s still UNC-Duke.
It’s still the Victory Bell.
It’s still all but certain to determine the Coastal Division champion.
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It’s still the biggest football game played in the Triangle this season.
That’s still a lot to pile into one afternoon whether a replay official does his job or not, whether both teams are ranked or not.
“I think Duke will be highly motivated to play North Carolina no matter what,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said Wednesday. “I hope North Carolina is highly motivated to play Duke no matter what. These are two schools 15 miles apart that have had a rivalry over many, many years.”
That rivalry flared last season when North Carolina’s celebration got out of hand at Duke, flared two years ago when Duke clinched the Coastal Division title at Kenan Stadium and flared three years ago when Duke beat North Carolina for the first time in nine years.
Even if both aren’t ranked this time around, one of the two has been in the top 25 in three of the last four seasons after a 15-year gap, injecting this rivalry with some old frisson that had been lacking for a decade and a half, maybe even since Steve Spurrier’s famous photo with the long-dismantled Kenan scoreboard.
“It’s a huge rivalry game,” Duke center Matt Skura said. “The rivalry in itself kind of fuels us already. I think we have a lot of energy going forward.”
A Duke win pulls the Blue Devils even with North Carolina with a tiebreaker advantage. A North Carolina win would put the Tar Heels essentially two games clear of the pack.
This season, the Coastal Division implications double the stakes. While Miami’s win over Duke denied the 3-1 Blue Devils an unbeaten ACC record coming into the game, which would have made this a de facto title game, the path to the division title is still on the line.
A Duke win pulls the Blue Devils even with North Carolina with a tiebreaker advantage with a reasonably favorable schedule remaining: Pittsburgh at home, at Virginia, at Wake Forest.
A North Carolina win would put the 4-0 Tar Heels essentially two games clear of the pack, already holding the tiebreaker over one-loss Pittsburgh, albeit with a much tougher run-in: Miami, at Virginia Tech in Frank Beamer’s final home game, at N.C. State.
There are still title scenarios that don’t involve Duke or North Carolina. Pittsburgh (4-1) could still win the division, but needs help after the Thursday night loss to North Carolina and also has to play Louisville and Miami. Saturday’s winner between 2-2 Miami and Virginia will still be alive, barely. (All would benefit mightily from a Duke win Saturday.)
It’s not as neat and tidy as it could have been, but this game is no less pivotal. Both teams go into Saturday with control over their destiny. Only one will still have it Saturday night.
“That was definitely the goal before this past weekend, to win out, win every game,” Duke defensive back Dwayne Norman said. “It definitely helps us to win out and keep the Coastal race out of tiebreakers and people winning and losing. It’s a little bit of pressure, but that was the plan all along.”
The Triangle’s two Coastal Division teams put themselves in position to win the division over the first nine weeks of the season. North Carolina will still have a shot with a loss, but a win would get the Tar Heels almost all the way to Charlotte. Duke needs to win out, but North Carolina is the toughest remaining hurdle for the Blue Devils.
Those are the stakes Saturday, and what happened at the end of the Duke-Miami game didn’t materially change them.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock