To me the archetypal UNC-NCSU football game is one I attended in 1995. It was Mack Brown's letdown season, the year before the two Gator Bowl years that would earn him the Texas job, and the Tar Heels had struggled to 5-5. The game had been moved to the Saturday following Thanksgiving, in the first of many attempts that decade to emphasize a rivalry that just wasn't gripping, and was being played in a cold rain in Carter-Finley. The grass on the field had died some two months earlier - how that can happen at a university with a turf management program I'll never know - and the play was as ugly as the lawn. The Wolfpack, down 16, had two fourth quarter touchdown drives in an attempt to tie. While the first two-point conversion was successful, the second, with seven seconds remaining failed (amid fan cries of pass interference) and UNC went on to win and qualify for the Carquest Bowl.
This is the epitome of this football series - ugly games between mediocre teams. It's a struggle I have very little invested in. Although I worked with a group of Wolfpack grads through the end of the Mike O'Cain era, and was duly mocked after Amato's first blowout win in a Kenan Stadium filled with red-clad fans, I could never care to truly seethe about it. And now that I'm across the country, I share more in common with the few State grads I know than animosity. None of us can be bothered to rekindle a rivalry. My interest now is limited to bemused reading of the anguish at StateFans Nation (and that even stopped after this post, the most offensive thing I've ever read on an ACC blog.) and comparisons of the stresses on each team's coach.
Which brings us to this weekend's game. As I said, it was good to see Bunting get that first and final home win of the season. The defense carried the day, keeping the Wolfpack out of the end zone and getting two interceptions a fumble-recovery touchdown just at N.C. State was beginning a downfield march to tie. Ronnie McGill again managed 100+ yards, and Joe Dailey had his best passing game outside of Notre Dame, avoiding the interception problem plaguing UNC all year.
So where does this lead Amato? The only thing keeping him in his job is the politics of firing him - the cost of a buyout, the odds of getting a good replacement, gunshyness after the post-Sendek search and the pipe dream of luring Bill Cowher. I think those reasons will be enough to grant him another year, a move that will damage the Wolfpack fanbase and probably cost Fowler his job, but we'll be granted one more red-shoed year.
You'll never see Cowher on the Carter-Finley sideline. I know I've said such things before but I don't see any reason for the man to take the job. Whethera new coach could lead to a Triangle football resurgence, well, I don't know. The talent pool in North Carolina has always been understocked and overfished, and good coaching alone won't turn a stretch of I-40 into a pigskin hotbed. Steady coaching over a couple of years, coupled with continued trouble in Florida could elevate one or both schools into regular conference contenders, though. And although a fiercely contested ACC where BC, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Maryland and UNC - the schools outside Florida with the best chance to build longterm, successful programs under their current coaches - won't get much respect around the country, if it provides good football and successful bowl participants, it'll be worth watching, and the recognition can come later. For the first time in quite a long while, I'm interested in how the season (and offseason) will play out.