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UNC vs NCSU Preview: Context is Everything

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There’s a great deal more at stake that simple bragging rights.

NCAA Football: The Citadel at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It occurs to me this Thanksgiving season that I’m very lucky.

No, I’m not going to torture you with some sappy remembrance of all I have to be thankful for, though I could. No, here I’m speaking chiefly about the fact that I’m at a family gathering for Thanksgiving, and there is no one coming through the door who’s an NC State fan or graduate.

Some of you are not so lucky, I know. If you live in North Carolina, chances are good that someone at your table saddles up for Thanksgiving dinner with some kind of Wolfpack gear on. In an ordinary Thanksgiving weekend, this is no big deal. There will be plenty of more mundane opportunities for conflict at a typical family Thanksgiving well before we arrive at the UNC-NC State rivalry.

But this year is different. It’s not just the relatives that want to tell you about their Crossfit routine, or relitigate the election, or sell you on an Amway opportunity. For the first time in living memory, you will carve into the turkey knowing that less than 24 hours later, a football blood feud will kick off. I have no idea what the players and coaches think about this arrangement, but as a fan, I cannot believe we haven’t done this before. Not only does it add drama to every Thanksgiving meal in the state of North Carolina, it is an absolutely ideal answer to the perennial question: what do I do on Black Friday, assuming that standing in line at Wal-Mart to fight over a heavily discounted off-brand television is not my idea of a good time? Yeah, this needs to be a permanent thing.

Of course, you don’t need a holiday to make the State game matter. If I’m lucky enough to write a UNC-NCSU football game preview every year for the next 50, it’s hard to imagine ever having to persuade anyone of that. It’s the way that it matters that changes, and on that front, this is probably the most important game the teams have played in some time, on both sides.

Let’s start with the State side of things. The natives are restless. They’re always restless in Raleigh, of course, since actually pulling for Wolfpack football and basketball teams there ranks a distant third behind wanting bad things to happen to UNC and demanding the firing of NCSU coaches (sharp readers will quickly note one exception to the rule by recalling the time State actually held a parade after finishing 5-3 in conference play – God, how I miss Chuck Amato). Right on cue, a few days ago The Technician (NC State’s student newspaper) published an editorial calling for head coach Dave Doeren to be fired. Of course, this is something of an annual tradition over at State, so maybe Doeren isn’t losing any sleep over it, but the conversation seems to have taken something of a turn lately. It got downright bloodthirsty after State lost at home to Boston College, who is without another ACC win in almost two full seasons. As nuts as it may seem to make any kind of coaching decision based on the results of a single football game, Doeren by now certainly understands his fanbase and how significant upsetting the Tar Heels might be in buying him time with them. Lose the 4th game in 5 years in the rivalry, however, and – best case scenario – it’s going to be a long winter on the Wolfpack Club circuit. Of course, there’s another possibility: an NCSU loss could lead to one of the more underrated, more glorious, and more unintentionally hilarious sports events there is. I refer, of course, to the chance that we get to watch another Debbie Yow coaching search.

As tantalizing as that prospect may be, there’s far more than good comedy at stake for the Tar Heels. Perhaps more than any of the State games in recent memory, this one feels – whether it should or not – like it will have an outsized role in what fans take away from the 2016 UNC football season.

You see, to be a North Carolina football fan is to be forever battling doubt. It is to live every winning moment with a sneaking suspicion that you’d be better off not believing, not trusting, not hoping, because just when you’re starting to let yourself go there one more time, something terrible happens, and, well, you’re just not sure you can take that again. This is a phenomenon of hard-won experience, and it is very real. On any objective level, Tar Heel fans should be wildly enthusiastic about the status and direction of the football program. After the first double-digit win season since 1997, UNC remains positioned to add a second consecutive one, which would be the first time that’s happened since, well, 1997 (it has happened only one other time in school history, which was in 1980 and 1981). We’ve waited for something like this for a long time.

And all of that would be worth getting excited about except . . . the Duke game happened. That game opened a lot of old wounds and fears. Sure, we lost to a beatable Georgia team, but it was Trubisky’s first start, it was in an extremely hostile environment, and no team can be defined by what they were in Week 1. And Virginia Tech? Well, OK, fine. They were better at playing freak weather football than the Tar Heels, but the situation is so extreme that you can accept it. But Duke? Duke -- on a perfect fall evening on primetime television no less – is another thing entirely. It raises all the old ghosts. It raises the fear that all of the success of the last season and a half – all of the offense, all of the wins, all of the victories that in seasons past were sure losses – were just a mirage; a brief break from your regularly scheduled Tar Heel football.

Larry Fedora and UNC football need the State game to push back on that fear, and to continue to build not only a quality program, but the faith of the fan base. A 9-3 season and a good bowl game will quiet the sting of that awful Thursday night in Durham, and might even sneak the Heels back into the ACC title game with a chance to wipe that game out of the memory banks altogether (no one will remember the Duke loss in an ACC title winning season). Lose to State, though, and all of the questions get louder and scarier. In a sense, the Duke loss would be validated, and what has looked for most of the last 2 years like a team hitting its stride and heading to new places, with plenty of room left to grow, begins to look to some like a team returning to its norm, having just had a nice but fluky 2015. Same old Carolina. That would be an overreaction – after all, the wins at Florida State and Miami are just as real as the Duke loss is – but emotions are usually stronger than facts. Regardless of whether it’s logical or fair, that reaction will be there. Faith, once shaken, is difficult to rebuild.

Friday’s game is in a sense a chance for Switzer, Howard, Crowley, Heck, Logan and the rest of the senior class to make their final argument that they are the group of players who, with Fedora, redefined what the identity of North Carolina football is and can become, and bigger still, restored faith where it had all but vanished. They can be remembered as the foundation from which new heights were reached.

Yes, it’s a rivalry, and that always matters. This year, though, it matters more than usual.

Go Tar Heels.