ACC members North Carolina and Wake Forest are separated by about 75 miles as the crow flies. But as far as football is concerned, they might as well be light-years apart because of the conference’s divisional alignment.
So when the Tar Heels and Deacons play one another for the 107th time dating back to 1888 Friday night in Winston-Salem, in a game that won’t count in the ACC standings, they’ll do so more as strangers than rivals.
“Our football team is very aware of the history of this game, the tradition,” Wake coach Dave Clawson said at his regular weekly press conference on Tuesday. “It’s the oldest rivalry in North Carolina. It is a big, big deal and we do not minimize it. What’s weird about it is just our lack of familiarity with them.”
The relationship between UNC and Wake predates their entry into the ACC as charter members in 1953. They met on the football field every fall between 1919 and 2004, when the conference expanded, split into divisions and turned the Tar Heels and Deacons into twin siblings separated at birth.
Because the league only plays two cross-division games per year with one coming against a permanent partner — NC State in UNC’s case, Duke for Wake — the teams have met only four times over the past 14 years and aren’t scheduled to play again until 2022.
It’s such an unnatural arrangement that both sides agreed to a home-and-home series in which they will, at least technically, be nonconference opponents. The return game in Chapel Hill is scheduled for 2021.
Players on both sides are looking forward to renewing the in-state rivalry as much as the fans. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. Friday with television coverage on ESPN.
“We play NC State and Duke every year and then the other team you hear about it Wake,” UNC offensive tackle Charlie Heck said at the ACC’s Football Kickoff media event this summer. “So you would think we’d play them every year.”
“I’ll play Carolina tomorrow in the backyard just to play them. Conference or not, I don’t care,” Deacons running back Cade Carney said at that same event. “It’s a rival. We both get excited to play this game and, like I said, I’d play them even if it didn’t even go on the record.”
The matchup is even more personal for two players that will face each other for the first time on Friday. Chazz Surratt is a linebacker for the Tar Heels while his younger brother, Sage, is a wide receiver for the Deacons, which means that there’s a realistic chance the two will meet on the field at some point during the game.
And it won’t be for a hug.
“He’s been talking a little bit of trash, talking about hitting me and stuff,” Sage said. “Bragging rights in the house are definitely up for grabs, especially with the UNC-Wake Forest rivalry.
“It’s the first time I’ll be on the field with him for a while, since I was a (high school) junior. But this time I’ll be going against him, so it will be a little different. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be a great game and a great atmosphere.”
What was once looked upon as a novelty because of its designation as a nonconference game has become a much more meaningful matchup thanks to the results of the first two weeks this season.
The fact that the Deacons come in at 2-0 is hardly a surprise, given the amount of talent they have returning on both sides of the ball and the less-than-intimidating opponents they’ve played.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, are one of the major surprises of the young college football season with wins against South Carolina and ACC Coastal foe Miami in their first two games with Hall of Famer Mack Brown as their coach.
And from the sound of things, they’re hungry for more.
“It seems like their total focus is on trying to get to 3-0.” Brown said. “And they understand the importance of that.”
Brown also stressed the significance beyond his team’s record of winning games against in-state rivals. Even those that don’t count in the ACC standings.
“It’s really important to me for our fans,” he said. “When they wake up on Monday morning and go to work, they do not want their counterpart at Wake Forest laughing about their football team. I learned that long ago. Don’t mess up close to home because it smells.”