PITTSBURGH -- The calendar is about to turn to November, so it is apropos that Duke and North Carolina are the talk of the ACC.
Hold those basketball jokes.
Just the way everybody predicted (yeah, right), the teams are set to play the biggest football game in the rivalry's history Nov. 7 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina -- with the Coastal Division title on the line. If No. 22 Duke beats Miami on Saturday and North Carolina (7-1) joins the Top 25 as expected, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels will face each other as ranked teams for the first time since … 1939.
As it stands, the two are the only teams in the Coastal that are unbeaten in conference play. Even if Duke loses to Miami, the winning team next week between the rivals will control the Coastal.
Immediately after North Carolina beat No. 23 Pitt 26-19 on Thursday night, folks wearing Carolina blue started talking Duke. Coach Larry Fedora didn’t mention the Blue Devils by name, but he did say, “We’ve got a really important one coming up.”
Quarterback Marquise Williams said, “It feels great, but we can’t get complacent. We’ve still got Duke coming into our house next week and it’s going to be a big-time game for us.”
North Carolina is not used to playing big-time games into November with the ACC on the line, not after becoming a perennial disappointment over the last few years for one reason or another. Fedora and his players vowed this was a new team when they hit Pinehurst in July. But you never know until you see actual results.
That’s why the Tar Heels badly needed a win Thursday night after going splat so many times on the national stage -- including a head-scratching season-opening loss to South Carolina.
Some of their fans wondered why UNC was not yet ranked: 1. The Tar Heels played two FCS teams. 2. That was a very bad loss to South Carolina. 3. They had not beaten any ranked teams this year.
It was not a perfect game, but it doesn’t take a perfect game to win -- especially in the Coastal. North Carolina has won seven straight for the first time since 1997, and remains the favorite to win the division, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“It feels good to control your own destiny,” receiver Ryan Switzer said. “Confidence can do a lot to 19-, 20-, 21-year-old men, and you can just sense it around our team. We haven’t paid too much attention about people writing us off because we deserve that for our performances the past two years. When people put their faith in us, we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain.
“We knew what we had going into this year. It was just a feeling that this was going to be the year that we got over that hump. I’m really proud of our guys. It feels good to be in the driver’s seat.”
Fedora says he knows what he had. Switzer and Williams say they know what they had. The beauty, at least to them, is how it all came together.
“You’ve seen a different team from the beginning,” Fedora said. “How were they going to perform? I didn’t know. Now it’s ‘I can’t wait to see them on Saturday or Thursday night.’ I tell them all the time, ‘I can’t wait to watch you play.’ We’re excited about these kids and the way they perform and how they care about each other. That’s fun.”
Will Fedora still be having fun after playing Duke? The biggest game of the season awaits.