Let's face it. The Carolina-State rivalry in recent history is one of your better examples of high drama for low stakes. Both teams have been bowl eligible in the same season only three times in the last fifteen years – 1998, 2001, and 2008. More often, the two teams are playing for pride, or for one to knock the other out of bowl contention. The game bounces around the schedule, sometimes supplanting Duke for a season-ending, post-Thanksgiving grudge match, as in 1995, 1998, 1999, and last season. Tom O'Brien's ridiculous complaints have probably put an end to that. Other times the game has shown up as early as the third week of the season – UNC is 3-0 in those games, indicating State needs a little time to let the rivalry warm up. I rather like it when it falls in the third week of November, as the game preceding the Duke-UNC game. It gives it a sense of importance, and often makes it Senior Day for one of the two teams, without interfering with the division races. If State wants to follow it up with a game against East Carolina as they often did in the '90's, that's all the better. Sorry Wolfpackers, but ending the season with Wake Forest has never caught on as a grudge match, I'm afraid.
But if the games haven't meant much outside of pride, they've been terriffic nonetheless. At least four in recent memory have ended with failed or successful goal line stands. UNC slipped across in 1995 in Carter-Finley to clinch bowl eligibility in a 30-28 win. The Heels then stopped the Wolfpack on fourth and goal as time expired to maintain a 10-6 win. In '04 UNC stopped T.A. McLendon twice at the goal line with under 30 seconds to play, to keep a 30-24 win. And in 2007 T.J. Yates had 1st and goal on the seven, but threw four incomplete passes as UNC lost 31-27.
Last year's game was another frustrating one for Carolina, where excessive turnovers turned what should have been a sure win into a humiliating loss. The Tar Heels have been blindsided by the Wolfpack two years in a row now, first by a 31-point rout from a 4-6 team, and then this past season by a team already removed from bowl eligibility. o what does that say about this year's Wolfpack, currently in a three-way tie for the Atlantic Division title?
Not much, in fact. This team has been very difficult to figure out. They smoked Georgia Tech one week after the Yellow Jackets dismantled UNC, and held off FSU in one of the more exciting games of the season. But they've also lost to East Carolina in overtime, and couldn't get more than 13 points against a Clemson team when the division championship was almost a lock. Their passing game is the best in the ACC, as Russell Wilson has continued to improve, and WIlson has always had a lot of success against an otherwise strong UNC secondary. They're offensive line, however is tied with UNC's in the number of sacks they've given up. Carolina's line has improved in recent weeks, though; State's hasn't. But UNC has never been a team to emphasize going after the quarterback, preferring to contain.
Their ground game isn't much to speak of. Running back Mustafa Greene barely has more yards than Wilson, and although james Washington has been getting more attempts of late, his yards per carry are even worse. So the offense is any worse than what UNC has seen the past three seasons. It's the defense that has improved. They giv up fewer first downs than anyone in the conference, and recover more fumbles as well. Anthony Elzy is particular prone to coughing the ball up, and will have to take good care of it. Yates should be able to avoid the interceptions if he doesn't throw into double coverage like last week; State's secondary is good but not spectacular. I'd expect a very conservative offense from UNC after last week's rash of turnovers; that alone gives me a sense of dread because State's offense will be firing on all cylinders.
And then there's the elephant in the room. UNC teams have not gotten up for their games against State under Davis. Often they've come out flat; last season they started strong but lost focus for large stretches of time. This year's seniors have never beaten the Wolfpack, a streak similar to the one State seniors in 2007 found themselves in. Those State players were shamed into bringing back a victory. Can Carolina do the same?
I've stopped having expectations for this team. They've defied them at every turn, winning and losing when they shouldn't. So maybe my pessimism is a good sign; expect the loss, get the win. We'll see. But State has a better track record this season even if UNC is the favorite. Let's hope it's my expectations that are upset and not the betting line.