Friedlander: All in for a UNC-NC State football ACC championship game
No rivalry in college sports attracts as much attention or receives the kind of hype as the one between Tobacco Road neighbors North Carolina and Duke.
In basketball, at least.
Sure, there’s still plenty of passion to go around when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils meet on the football field each year. But because the game usually has as much relevance as cursive writing in a digital world, the fervor is mainly reserved to those in uniform – especially when it’s time for one team to rescue the Victory Bell from the opposing sideline so it can be spray painted the correct shade of blue.
There’s a reason the ACC moved the matchup from its traditional rivalry week date at the end of the regular season a few years ago and replaced it with the annual clash with UNC’s other Triangle opponent.
The football game against NC State just means more. How much more depends on which side of the equation you’re on.
For the Wolfpack, the Tar Heels aren’t just a rival. They’re a hated enemy sent down from Chapel Hill hell bent on threatening everything they hold dear. And Wolfpack fans spend the entire year thinking, talking and dreaming about putting the blue bloods in their place.
Even coach Dave Doeren has been known to get into the act, occasionally stirring the pot with incendiary comments aimed either directly or indirectly toward the opposition.
The folks in blue aren’t nearly as overt in their disdain for the Wolfpack. But don’t let the chants of “not our rival” from the stands at Kenan Stadium and Smith Center fool you.
As the post-overtime brawl of 2018 and the angry posts that flooded social media after the Tar Heels blew a two-score lead in the final two minutes last year suggest, the football competition between the schools means every bit as much to UNC as it does to State.
So imagine what it would be like if the teams were ever to meet in an ACC Championship game.
It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. The Wolfpack are loaded with 17 returning starters, including preseason conference Player of the Year Devin Leary and virtually the entire defense that allowed the second-fewest points in the ACC a year ago.
If ever there’s been a year for them to finally end three decades of frustration, this is it.
As for the Tar Heels, they’re no longer burdened by the unreasonable expectations they carried on their shoulders in 2021, and they play in the chaotic Coastal Division, where anything and everything can and usually does happen.
Should the moon and stars align just right, it would be exactly the kind of matchup conference leaders envisioned when they decided to split rivals into opposite divisions upon the creation of the format in 2005.
Only the rivals they had in mind at the time were Miami and Florida State.
With all due respect to the Hurricanes and Seminoles, who have never been able to hold up their end of the bargain, a championship showdown between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack promises to be a lot more interesting and fun.
Consider that the game would be held in Charlotte with nerve endings already frayed from a regular season clash only a few days earlier and that a conference title would be on the line, something neither team has won since Mack Brown was wearing bell bottoms and Doeren was in the third grade.
They might have to put up a fence at Bank of America Stadium to keep opposing fans separated and ensure that the physical violence is limited to the legal kind that goes on between the white lines.
Then again, the overstimulation of such a potentially volatile situation could turn out to be too much for either side to handle.
But c’mon, why not?
By comparison, this doesn’t even come close to the ultimate sign of the apocalypse that unfolded in New Orleans in April when UNC and Duke crashed head-on at the Final Four for the first time ever. In Coach K’s final season, no less.
If the world as we know it didn’t implode from that clash of titans and the media circus that surrounded it, the state of North Carolina can surely survive one little football game with little to no national significance.
Besides, a Wolfpack-Tar Heel title tilt might turn out to be the perfect solution for a problem first raised by UNC’s Brown at last year’s ACC preseason event.
Unlike the Iron Bowl, Border War, Clean Old Fashioned Hate and most of the other intense football rivalries around the country, this rivalry doesn’t have a catchy nickname or symbolic trophy to be passed back and forth to the winner each year.
Doeren agreed with his Tar Heel counterpart that such a tangible reward “would be a great thing for these games to have.”
There are any number of possibilities for an appropriate prize that best depicts the spirit of their annual series. A BBQ smoker, perhaps? A replica of Dale Earnhardt’s iconic No. 3 race car to drive around the field in a victory lap? Maybe a paper airplane in the shape of the Wright Flier.
If all else fails, the ACC will have an actual trophy all shined up and ready to be handed out at Bank of America on the first Saturday in December. They can always just play for that.