by Mike Potter
Saturday will be the final day of college football’s regular season in the Triangle, and there are still a couple of major questions to be answered.
Can N.C. State win one more home game in which it’s favored and earn itself a bowl bid?
Is it Everett Withers’ last home game as head coach at UNC, and can he go out a winner — or will Duke finally get a chance to paint the Victory Bell for the first time since 2003?
The answers will start coming at 12:30, when State (6-5, 3-4 ACC) puts its entire season on the line against struggling Maryland (2-9, 1-6) at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Since the Wolfpack played two teams that count as Division I-FCS opponents — South Alabama will count as an FBS member next season — it needs to win seven to qualify for a bowl game. (They’re hoping but not talking about the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on Dec. 27.) That would also lock up a second straight winning season for State for the first time since 2002-03.
UNC (6-5, 2-5) will host Duke (3-8, 1-6) at 3:30 at Kenan Stadium, and since the Tar Heels played just one FCS team they’re all bowl-ready. But they’d love to protect that bell, either helping interim coach Withers get the full-time position or at least helping send him out on a good note.
State has worked magic at Carter-Finley this season as it has struggled on the road.
The Wolfpack’s defense has played lights out in its last two home games, beating UNC 13-0 and Clemson 37-13 in contests it absolutely had to win.
But Coach Tom O’Brien is cautioning about anyone counting chickens and getting big heads before the Maryland win is a done deal. Within the past five seasons, the Terps have once denied the Pack a .500 season and last year kept State out of the ACC championship game.
“As I said to them, very seldom in life do you get a second chance, but they’ve earned a second chance,” O’Brien said. “They’ve given themselves a second chance. If they’re going to go touch the hot stove and burn themselves again, that’s their deal. We’re in a playoff right now. You either win or you go home, so they have to decide where they want to go.
“Just because Maryland has lost six or seven in a row, that doesn’t mean that that team there is going to be the one they play Saturday. They have nothing to lose, they can come in here and do whatever the heck they want. We have to play that way, we have to look at the tape and play very cautious, and once again, are you going to stick your hand in the oven or not.”
OK, now it’s time for more clichés, since the eight-mile Battle of the Blues would be a big game even if the Tar Heels and Blue Devils were 0-11.
This one is massive for Duke, since a win would certainly set off a very long celebration and just lift the aura around the program in general. UNC is going to play a December game regardless, but it’s hard to see Withers having a serious chance to stay on if Duke pulls the upset in the season finale.
“We’re excited about the game this week, obviously,” Withers said. “Another in-state opponent, eight miles away, a rivalry. And I really think that Duke has got a good football team that doesn’t have a very good record right now.
“Coach (David) Cutcliffe and his staff have done a great job with the program and we’re going to have to play well because we know what kind of ball game this is. This isn’t about records or anything, this is about being eight miles away and trying to be the better team on Saturday.”
Cutcliffe is 0-4 against the Tar Heels, with all four decisions by 13 or fewer points.
“I think whether it’s a rival game or not, last game of the year, they stay with you a long time,” Cutcliffe said. “It certainly will make my Christmas shopping more aggressive. I’m in a much better mood myself. … You have one last game in your career as a senior, one. The score never changes, the results never go away. We all remember it. That’s just a part of what it is.
“So I think that those last games are filled with a lot of emotion, and then we throw in a rival game — and a unique rival game because we’re so geographically close and a lot of those young men know each other so well. It should be a lot of intensity on the field.”