Poll watchers: Heels, Pack to meet as ranked opponents

For the first time in 27 years, the Triangle rivals will play with both teams in the Associated Press Top 25

NC State, which has exceeded expectations through five games and entered this week’s AP poll at No. 23, will try to improve to 5-1 when it visits No. 14 UNC on Saturday in Chapel Hill. (Photo courtesy of the ACC)

When North Carolina and NC State renew their football rivalry for the 110th time on Saturday, it will mark the first time since 1993 that both teams enter their matchup ranked.

The No. 14 Tar Heels are 3-1 and 23rd-ranked Wolfpack are 4-1 headed into the noon game at Kenan Stadium.

But that, in the estimation of UNC coach Mack Brown, is where the similarities end.

“I think we’ve been overrated,” he said Monday. “I think they’ve been underrated.”

While Brown’s assessment of the matchup carries a hint of gamesmanship, there’s also a grain of truth to it. Going into last week’s game at Florida State, his Tar Heels were ranked No. 5 in the country despite not having lived up to the hype that has followed them since the start of the season.

A double-digit favorite against the 1-3 Seminoles whose only win had come against FCS opponent Jacksonville State, UNC fell behind 31-7 at halftime and couldn’t catch up in suffering its first loss of the season.

The Wolfpack, meanwhile, managed to recover from its own slow start against Duke to win 31-20 for its third straight ACC win.

“We weren’t the top-five team in the country,” Brown said. “Part of that was because the Big Ten wasn’t playing yet, part of it’s because we’d won two or three games. But I didn’t think we handled it well. I thought we were a little comfortable at Florida State instead of confident, and we got hit right in the mouth.”

State has been the team delivering the blows over the past few games, especially on defense.

Since instituting a piece of rawhide as a reward for forcing turnovers two weeks ago at Virginia, a trophy that’s become known as the Takeaway Bone, the Wolfpack has intercepted six passes. Two of them came from Payton Wilson, who also made 19 tackles in Saturday’s win against Duke to earn ACC Linebacker of the Week honors.

State’s offense has vastly improved since the arrival of new coordinator Tim Beck.

But the dynamic of the balanced attack that has averaged 33.6 points through its first five games — just one notch below UNC’s 35.3 in the ACC standings — along with the matchup in general has changed dramatically because of an injury to quarterback Devin Leary.

The redshirt sophomore suffered a broken fibula late in Saturday’s game and is out for the rest of the regular season.

“Obviously, the injury to Devin is tough to him and us,” State coach Dave Doeren said. “I hate that for a young man that’s worked so hard and has played so well.”

The good news for the Wolfpack is that Leary’s replacement won’t be coming in cold. Junior Bailey Hockman started two games last season and was pressed into service at the start of this year after Leary missed too much preparation time while in contact tracing for the coronavirus.

Hockman led the team to a 45-42 win against Wake Forest on Sept. 12, completing his first 13 passes along the way, before being replaced by Leary following a much less successful performance in a loss at Virginia Tech the following week.

While Hockman’s arm isn’t as strong as Leary’s and his decision-making skills are sometimes shaky, Doeren said he has confidence in his team’s new leader.

“He’s just got to go play football and let it all go,” said Doeren, who is 3-0 in his career against UNC in Chapel Hill (4-3 overall). “I thought he played really good against Wake Forest. We just need him to get back to that. I know he’ll prepare the right way. It’s his time.

“It’s a matter of him taking advantage of the opportunity. He doesn’t have to go be Superman. He just needs to run the offense. That’s it.”

Don Juan Moore | courtesy of the ACC
Sam Howell and the UNC offense are hoping for a bounce-back performance Saturday against the Wolfpack. (Photo by Don Juan Moore / Character Lines via the ACC)

While Doeren would be happy for his quarterback to play the role of Clark Kent, many around college football expected UNC’s Sam Howell to put on a cape and leap tall buildings in a single bound after a freshman season that saw him set an ACC rookie record with 35 touchdowns passes.

While he hasn’t matched that kind of performance yet this season, he hasn’t been bad either.

And after nearly rallying from their massive halftime deficit by outscoring Florida State 21-0 over the final two periods Saturday, Brown is hoping that Howell and his teammates are coming into Saturday’s game with some momentum despite the loss.

No matter what the circumstances, he knows that emotions will be running high — as they always do when the Tar Heels and Wolfpack meet. It’s the first in a stretch of four games that will see UNC play all three of its in-state ACC rivals, with Virginia also thrown into the mix.

“It will be really interesting to see if me, our coaches and our players can get everybody up at the height of their emotion for four straight weeks before we get a weekend off because that’s really hard to do,” Brown said. “And I do know those four teams, they’re going to play hard against us. So we’ve got to see if we’re ready with our program to play hard against them.”