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Gotta Disagree With You On This One, Tom…

July 30, 2009
Coach O’Brien doesn’t like the idea of playing Carolina in the final game of the regular season.

I get what coach is saying here. He doesn’t find it appealing — by playing the Heels in the final game of the year — there’s a possibility that State and Carolina could find themselves playing one another the very next week in the ACC title game.

“I think it’s a dumb game to play at that time of the year, because you’re crossing divisions,” O’Brien said during this year’s ACC Football Kickoff.

And in general terms, yes, it does seem foolish to be playing cross-divisional opponents when there’s a possibility you could have to turn right back around and play them again the following week.

But not this game.

(Continues)

State versus Carolina is the biggest college football rivalry in North Carolina. Period. As a state, North Carolina may not have a lot to offer the national media types when it comes to college football, but within the state’s borders, State/Carolina is the biggest game of the year to the majority of football fans here, each and every year.

Personally, I was happy when I heard the game had been moved to the final game of the season. I think a lot of State and Carolina fans were, too. Duke/Carolina as a yearly season finale didn’t “move the needles” within the state. The 12 Duke football fans in the area aren’t capable of making enough noise to drive the animosity needed to make that football game meaningful.

But State and Carolina fans — the two largest fanbases in North Carolina — make each and every game worth watching. Now that both programs seem to both be trending upward at the same time, interest in the matchup is high. (It also helps that State’s beaten the Heels twice in a row, stoking the fires that died down in Chapel Hill).

Let’s say the scenario Tom O’Brien fears most unfolds. State and Carolina both have a title appearance wrapped up and will meet the following week in the ACC title game. Does that take anything away from the regular season game? Does it make either team less likely to show up or perform at their highest level because they’re looking ahead to the next weekend? I doubt it.

Look at it this way: If you win the regular season finale, you have an opportunity to make it 2-0 over your rival for the ACC title. If you lose the regular season finale, you’ve still got a chance to even the score and one up them by winning the ACC title.

The argument against playing Carolina back-to-back might be that you don’t want to lose both games in succession, or win the regular season matchup but lose the big one a week later in the ACC title game. But does it really matter if those W/L scenarios shake out with the regular season game played earlier in the year versus in the final game of the season? I don’t think it does. Both options aren’t appealing, but the possibility of it going down over the course of two weeks back-to-back doesn’t make it any less appealing than if the games were separated on the calendar by a couple of months. Losing in the title game against your rival would suck any way you slice it.

Conversely, I think there’s a chance for positive press nationally if State and Carolina were locked into back-to-back games at the end of the year.

For one, it’s a unique set of circumstances. It’s rare two teams play one another back-to-back in college football. That alone would get folks in New York talking.

Also, assuming both teams are locked into the title game, there’s a good chance it would be a meeting of two ranked teams. Any time two ranked rival teams square off against one another, there’s attention paid by the national media. That these two ranked teams would be facing one another twice in two weeks only adds to that appeal.

I think it would also add another element of interest to the ACC title game that frankly needs it — it’s been a huge disappointment for the league to this point. Having two rival teams face off with one another in a rematch of the previous week’s tilt — with a week for both teams to analyze what went wrong and what went right — should make for a compelling storyline in the ACC title game locally, regionally and nationally. And since Charlotte is slated to host the ACC title game in 2010 and 2011, a sold-out State/Carolina rematch in the Queen City for all the conference marbles has to be an appealing thought to commissioner John Swofford, who’s watched 25%-filled stadiums become the norm in the title game.

This is all assuming State and Carolina is locked into the title game prior to the regular season matchup. It overlooks, in my mind, the best scenario that can come from a final-game meeting between Carolina and State — where the game determines who goes and who misses out on the ACC title game. It’s the one thing this rivalry has lacked for so many years — something to play for.

Let’s face it. This annual game ain’t the Red River Shootout, where the loser often stands to miss out in the national title hunt. It’s not the Miami/Florida State series of a decade ago that held similar implications. It’s not even the World’s Largest Can’t-Call-It-A-Cocktail-Party-Anymore Cocktail Party between Georgia and Florida that impacts the SEC conference race every year.

State and Carolina, for as long as I and many of you all can remember, has never had any implications beyond workplace water coolers and family picnics. Maybe that’s been enough at times, but imagine a State/Carolina game where the winner advances to the title game. Or perhaps one team winning leads to a rematch in the ACC title game. Perhaps one team winning knocks the other out of the title game (how’s that for adding some salt to the wound of your bitter rival?).

To me, that’s what we — as State and Carolina fans — stand to gain by having this cross-divisional game come in the final game of the season. Something to play for. A lot has to fall just right for that to happen; State and Carolina have to both continue on their upward paths, and history says that it’s rare that either team — let alone both — is good enough to contend for an ACC title. But imagine if the pieces fell just right and the State/Carolina game became, as Packman likes to refer to in wrasslin’ vernacular, a “Loser Leave Town” match.

You won’t get those kinds of implications playing the game in October versus the end of November. Maybe you could look back and say, “Yeah, had we just beaten Carolina in the fifth week of the year, we’d have been in that title game,” but if your team was just one cross-divisional game away from making the title game, you could point to just about any loss on the schedule as “the one that got away.” By having that final game be the State/Carolina game, with a title shot on the line, there would be no mistaking which win got you in or which loss kept you out. Because believe me, you’d hear about it for the next 364 days from your friends, family and coworkers.

Sorry coach…that’s the way it should be.

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