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October 14, 2012

Controlling their destiny

If somebody would have said this time a decade ago that North Carolina would beat Virginia Tech and Miami in back-to-back weeks on the football field, a lot of people would have laughed.

But clearly, unquestionably, its a new day in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

And this year's Coastal Division race is now completely up for grabs after the Tar Heels knocked off the Hokies for the first time in Chapel Hill since Tech joined the ACC, and on Saturday the 'Canes, who were previously unbeaten in league play.

Now, with five games left in its season, UNC has a unique opportunity to close out strong and see its name at the top of the Coastal, even if it means not getting to play in the league's championship game.

They control their own destiny, and all they have to do is win out and they'll see their name at the top, no matter what else happens with games featuring any of the other schools.

And while winning out might have seemed a far fetch at halftime in Louisville, the fact is that UNC hasn't lost in a month and they're seemingly getting better every week heading into what appears to be a favorable part of the schedule.

At 2-1 in conference play, the Tar Heels are now looking at back-to-back weeks against its biggest rivals, Duke and N.C. State, and then they have a bye week before taking on Georgia Tech in Chapel Hill, Virginia in Charlottesville on Thursday night, and then Maryland back in Kenan Stadium two days after Thanksgiving in the season finale.

Duke comes into Saturday's game at 5-2 overall and 2-1 in league play, while in next Saturday's matchup, UNC will play an N.C. State squad that will have a winning record since they're 4-2 heading into Saturday's game at Maryland.

The Terrapins are the surprise of the ACC so far with a 2-0 league record, but their wins are over a couple of teams that are really struggling in Wake Forest and Virginia.

Virginia is currently bringing up the rear in the Coastal Division with an 0-3 mark in league play, while Georgia Tech isn't far behind at 1-3.

Combined, UNC's five remaining opponents this fall have an overall record of 17-15, but just a 6-8 combined mark in ACC play.

Looking at the Coastal Division specifically, it's a logjam at the top.

Four teams (UNC, Duke, Virginia Tech, and Miami) all have one loss, but the Tar Heels hold key tiebreakers against the 'Canes and Hokies now. UNC has a chance to get that tiebreaker in Durham against the Blue Devils Saturday evening in Wallace Wade Stadium.

Virginia Tech and Miami still have to play each other, so one of them will take a second loss, and keep in mind that the 'Canes have to play Florida State next Saturday, so things could get tricky for Al Golden's squad.

Duke had a chance to stunningly sit atop the Coastal unbeaten in league play had they gone to Blacksburg and toppled Tech, but their loss creates a situation where the winner of Saturday night's Tobacco Road battle will hold first place in the Division.

Who would have thought it? A UNC-Duke game with first place in the ACC Coastal on the line?

But that's the case, and it creates a storyline that hasn't been mentioned in this rivalry in the lifetimes of a lot of people reading this, as well as the one writing it.

For all the years Duke and UNC have played in the ACC, their annual battle has helped determine the league championship fate for one of them, such as when the Blue Devils won the league in 1989 under Steve Spurrier, and in years like 1980 and 1977, when UNC had to beat Duke in regular season finales to ensure ACC championships.

But when's the last time that UNC and Duke played a football game in which the winner set itself up to have a chance to sit atop the league standings at the end of the regular season?

Frankly, you'd have to go back to the early 1960s, and perhaps specifically 1963, when UNC won a hard-fought 16-14 battle in Durham thanks in large part to a late field goal by Max Chapman.

That year's UNC-Duke game had been rescheduled to Thanksgiving Day following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, and it was probably the last time that Carolina and Duke met with both teams harboring legitimate hopes of leading the league at the end of the regular season.

Carolina's win that Thanksgiving Day propelled the Tar Heels to the school's first-ever league title in what had then been a decade of ACC membership, and they went on to shut out Air Force for the program's first postseason bowl victory down in Jacksonville's Gator Bowl.

This time around the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are each coming in with five wins, which means that bowl eligibility, under normal circumstances, would await the winner.

UNC, of course, can't play in a bowl this fall, but what they can do is keep the Victory Bell in Chapel Hill, where it's called home eight years in a row, and 21 out of the last 22 years.

And for Duke, it's not just about getting bowl eligible.

It's about becoming bowl eligible for the first time in nearly two decades---18 years specifically---if they can topple their arch-rivals.

Remarkably, Duke hasn't had a winning record or played in a bowl since Fred Goldsmith's 1994 team went 8-3 in the regular season and lost to Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl in the old Tampa Stadium.

You'd have to go all the way back to January 2, 1961 and the Cotton Bowl for Duke's last bowl victory, when Bill Murray's ACC champs went to Dallas and knocked off future NFL Hall of Famer Lance Alworth and Arkansas 7-6.

But now all the Blue Devils have to do is win just one out of its last five, and they'll finally be bowling again.

And for those Duke fans who hate UNC so much, nothing would be sweeter than to knock off the hated Tar Heels to become bowl eligible.

On the flip side, a win over Duke for the Tar Heels means even more momentum going into what is for all intents and purposes this year's bowl game---the battle in Kenan Stadium against N.C. State.

Becoming bowl-eligible is irrelevant this fall for UNC, but winning the mythical state championship isn't, and after giving away the Wake Forest game in WInston-Salem the Tar Heels must run the table against the Blue Devils and Wolfpack to stake a claim for that.

It all makes for what should be a fun time Saturday evening in Durham.


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