RALEIGH — It’s said that misery loves company. And when it comes to heated rivalries, there’s nothing more satisfying than causing a little misery for the opposition.
So it is for NC State, which can take some of the sting off being eliminated from bowl contention by helping to keep rival North Carolina home for the holidays as well.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, can return to the postseason for the first time in three years by beating the Wolfpack when they meet on Saturday night. It’s a storyline that has helped add just a little more juice to an already emotional regular season-ending matchup at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“(It’s great) to have a rivalry this close together,” State coach Dave Doeren said. “Every one of these games that I’ve been a part of has been very heated. I know how much we want to win. I know how much they want to win. I know what the fans are like, the whole deal.”
Doeren’s Wolfpack has won the past three meetings, including an overtime victory in Chapel Hill a year ago.
But the roles in this year’s game have been reversed from those of recent vintage.
State (4-7, 1-6 ACC) is no longer riding high after two straight nine-win seasons, the result of massive personnel losses to graduation, then injury, while UNC has experienced a resurgence in its first season under new/old coach Mack Brown.
Although the Tar Heels are only 5-6 overall (3-4 ACC), every one of their losses thus far has come down to the final possession or beyond. That includes two overtime defeats and one tantalizingly close near-upset against defending national champion Clemson back in September.
As satisfying as the season has been after winning a combined five games over the final two seasons of former coach Larry Fedora’s tenure, UNC still has some work left to do to reach the six-win plateau necessary for bowl eligibility.
“It’s funny, it’s been such an up and down year (that) it’s a great feeling that we’re in this position to go to a bowl, it’s also a bit disappointing that we’ve had so many opportunities against a Virginia Tech, who will play for the Coastal (Division title) against Virginia this week,” Brown said. “Against Virginia, against Pittsburgh, we’ve had those opportunities.
“The next step of our program, I thought, was to play to a standard last weekend (against Mercer), and we did that. Now the next step is that we have to win these games that are close. We’ve won some, but we’ve lost more than we’ve won and that’s disappointing. But we really need to finish well, and I think the guys (are) ready for this challenge.”
The one thing that is certain about Saturday’s matchup is that there doesn’t seem to be as much contentiousness among the opposing coaches as there was when Fedora was the man in charge of the Tar Heels.
Doeren insisted Monday that he and the former UNC coach had a good relationship. But it was clear from the rhetoric of their byplay that there was never any love lost between them.
Whether it’s the respect Doeren has for Brown or the fact his team is now the underdog, the Wolfpack coach was much more reserved than in past years in his comments about the Tar Heels and the rivalry.
“It doesn’t matter what your record is. It doesn’t matter what your injuries are. None of that matters,” he said. “I mean, last year they were a team that hadn’t won a lot of games and took us to overtime, with nine wins. We went up there a few years ago and they had 10 wins and we were fighting to get into a bowl game, and we killed them.
“It’s one of those games you’ve got to show up and play. Nobody cares what happened in the previous 11 weeks. It’s about what happens on that Saturday.”
While Brown agreed with the premise that records don’t really matter when it comes to rivalries, adding that games like this “are fun games,” he couldn’t help but throw just a little bit of shade by invoking the words of basketball counterpart Roy Williams.
“I think what you do is show your rivals respect,” Brown said. “You can have cute things to say, (such as) the school over there – you know Roy calls them ‘State College’ because he’s beaten them so much. We haven’t beaten them, (so) it’s hard for me to do any of that but have respect because they’ve beaten us.”