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UNC football: The weirdness of playing Duke in September

Will you remember the twenty-third night of September?

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

On September 23rd, two days off from the date Earth, Wind, and Fire asked us if we remembered, something will happen that has never happened before in the course of human history: the University of North Carolina and Duke University will meet on the football field.

Before you ask, yes, that is something that has happened a lot. Every year since 1922, in fact, with a few more meetings in the late 1800s, adding up to 104 overall. That number falls to 103 if you discount an 1889 affair in which both teams stayed home because they were convinced they were the home team and both teams credited themselves a win by forfeit.

In none of those 103 meetings, never in over a hundred years, however, have the two schools met on the football field in the month of September. In fact, save for the 2012 season, the last time the Heels and Blue Devils didn’t play in November was during World War II. Dating back to the meeting on November 21, 1931 (which ended in a 0-0 tie—you almost have to think they were playing soccer and not football), there have only been three meetings outside of November, all three of which occurred in October. Meaningless statistic of the day: Duke won all three of those meetings (1938, 1943, 2012).

All that said, this won’t be the earliest-in-the-year meeting between the two schools. Way back in 1889, back when Duke was still Trinity College and before the invention of the forward pass, the two schools met on May 8. Trinity College won that affair, 25-17, in what was a high-scoring game for the era. But September is an untouched month for this rivalry. That is, until 2017.

Was this a conscious decision? The answer to that question is yes and no. A few weeks ago, the Charlotte Observer wrote about the logic behind that decision. To give you the short version, it was a scheduling quirk. Duke plays the first three games of this upcoming season at home and requested a road game for their conference opener in Week 4. When the schools that already had nonconference games scheduled for that week were eliminated, the only team in Duke’s road rotation for this year that remained was UNC.

Duke will open its conference schedule against UNC for the first time ever. It will be North Carolina’s second ACC game after meeting Louisville at home during Week 2. For both teams, it will be their fourth game of the season. That means there’s no way for the game to have the drama of, say, the 2011 meeting, in which the Tar Heels earned bowl eligibility in the last regular season game of the Everett Withers era.

Or could the game be even more intense?

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe thinks so. During ACC media days, he stated that because “both teams are still going to have their season kind of doing this [he moves his hands up and down like an unbalanced scale] ... it maybe puts more on that game. It may increase the intensity.” He compared it to his time at Tennessee when their annual game against Florida came very early in the season and typically determined the winner of the SEC.

UNC head coach Larry Fedora agreed, pointing to the presence of returning Duke quarterback Daniel Jones as “the top returning quarterback in the Coastal Division.” He also added that “we’re going to have to be ready. We’re going to have camp and a couple of games under our belt so hopefully we will be able to compete and be ready to compete at that time.” When informed of Cutcliffe recalling the Tennessee-Florida tilts, Fedora nodded enthusiastically.

How about the players? They’re a bit less forward-thinking. Duke CB Byron Fields Jr. noted that he didn’t think the earlier meeting “changes the rivalry much” and that “everybody in the conference is a rival.” UNC OL Bentley Spain took a similar stance, saying that “we take games one game at a time, so once we get to that week we’ll start thinking about it and focus on winning the Bell back but right now we’re just worried about the first game.”

The players are focused on week 1, while the coaches are drawing on past experience to prepare for the significance of this meeting. Both parties raise some excellent points. Obviously, you can only really prepare for one game at a time, and both teams should focus on the first game of the season and not the fourth.

At the same time, it helps to have the foresight to say, “Hey, we have a chance to make a statement early. We have a chance to go ahead and get a head-to-head tiebreaker over this team. We have a chance to right the ship if we need to or prove we’re legitimate if we need to.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the UNC-Duke game will ever return to being both teams’ last game of the regular season, and whether or not the game will stay in September or return to November. Obviously, the rivalry between these two programs is not as storied or prolific as it is on the basketball court in winter and spring. But it’s still a matchup full of history, and history will be made in September no matter what happens on the field.