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Senior Days, rivalry games highlight closing weekend
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Thanksgiving Day is in the books, and many Atlantic Coast Conference football fans are looking ahead to December.
Clemson still holds the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. Next weekend’s Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game between the Tigers and 14th-ranked North Carolina at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium is one of the tougher tickets in years. Eight conference teams have earned bowl eligibility and a ninth – Virginia Tech – remains within striking range.
There is indeed much worth looking forward to – but not so fast.
This weekend marks the end of the 2015 regular season, and the nine-game slate involving ACC teams is significant on multiple levels.
It starts Friday at noon, with Pitt (8-3) and Miami (7-4) meeting at Heinz Field in hope of improving their bowl game resumes. It continues on Saturday, with intense rivalry in-state ACC games and equally heated battles against SEC opponents.
And this weekend marks the end for many ACC football student-athletes – the seniors and graduate students who will suit up final time. Aside from the handful that will play at the next level, Saturday will be the final time most will ever take the field.
“There's never been a lack of effort,” said Virginia coach Mike London, whose team has managed just four wins but has a chance to end on the highest of notes with a win over visiting rival Virginia Tech on Saturday. “I’m very proud of these individuals … these seniors that are getting ready to finish up. It has been special for them. We would like to have gotten more wins for them, but at the same time, the life lessons learned, the opportunities still yet to be achieved – and that's one for this Saturday.”
Even for seniors on bowl-bound teams such as NC State, this weekend will be an emotional one for those playing at home for the final time.
“We have 10 special guys we are really going to miss,” said Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren, who inherited this year’s senior class when he arrived in Raleigh prior to the 2013 season. “We’re talking about 222 starts and 358 games played. We’re only talking about 10 guys, but they have meant a lot to NC State and to our staff.”
“For those 10 guys, Saturday is a special day for them. For us as coaches, for us as a team, it is our goal to send them out as winners.”
KEEPING IT IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
The Wolfpack’s Doeren evened his personal record in the rivalry versus North Carolina at 1-1 with NC State’s 35-7 road win last year in Chapel Hill. Following the game, he related a story of some good-natured bantering with a Tar Heel fan he met at a dry cleaning store during the offseason.
That story – and the hundreds like them – are what make the rivalry the Wolfpack will renew with UNC on Saturday unique. Other college football series can match the interest and intensity, but few schools stand a mere 25 miles apart. And few own fan and alumni bases that are split so equally – or so passionately.
“They’re all big,” Doeren replied when asked to compare the rivalry games at his other coaching stops with State-UNC. “I can’t say I have been in a rivalry, where it didn’t seem like a big deal. The Montana-Montana State game was a big deal. It is a huge game in the state. USC-UCLA was big. The boarder war with Missouri and Kansas went back to the civil war. Paul Bunyan’s Axe at Wisconsin was huge.
“This one in unique for me, just because like I say you run into their fans probably more. I don’t know why, but at USC, even though UCLA was close, you just didn’t see as many people that cared about it. This one is just a bragging rights and maybe the common contact that you have, when there are split households and all the other things that go with it. It makes it fun.”
BLUEGRASS BRAGGING RIGHTS
Last year’s 44-40 win over Kentucky pushed Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino’s record against the Wildcats to 5-0. The 2014 game was an exception, however, in the fact that it was close. Louisville won big each year of Petrino’s first four years at the school (2003 through 2006). In fact, the Wildcats never led at any point during any of those four games.
All the same, Petrino says the wins remain special and memories of past games versus Kentucky remain among the high points of his career.
“I pretty much remember every game,” Petrino said. “I have never really thought one game defines a season. I think you play one game at a time and then when the season is over, then you go over and look at everything and see where we could have done things better or what we did well, what the issues are for next year. So we are just going to play one game at a time but this is a big game, this is a game for the state of Kentucky and has always been something I have enjoyed coaching in.”
Petrino said he realized very soon after he signed on for his first coaching stint in Louisville that maintain Cardinal bragging rights would be important – and that even close to home the Bluegrass State’s loyalties were divided.
“I remember when I first came here and moved out into Glenmary and walked out of my front door and saw a Kentucky flag right across the street,” Petrino said. “The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I thought, ‘How could this happen … what is this?’ But that is how it is. Louisville being the big city, a lot of Kentucky fans live right next door to you. Then you get to go to a basketball game, you know, and see that atmosphere and that competition.”
SEEKING MORE PERFECTION
Louisville’s win over Kentucky last season helped ACC teams post a 4-0 mark against their SEC counterparts during Rivalry Weekend. A 2015 repeat won’t be easy, particularly with Georgia Tech’s date with Georgia being the only one in which the ACC team plays at home. Top-ranked Clemson visits South Carolina, No. 14 Florida State travels to No. 10 Florida, and Louisville makes the trip to Lexington for the Kentucky game.
Clemson will be heavily favored against a South Carolina team that has struggled since a season-opening win over North Carolina, but Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney said Saturday’s meeting in Columbia looms as important to his team as ever. Clemson’s win last season snapped a five-game South Carolina winning streak in the series. The Tigers don’t want to revert back.
“Our guys understand (the game at South Carolina is special),” Swinney said. “Just lose it, and you’ll realize how special it is. Unfortunately, we have several guys on this team that have lost it.”
Swinney knows those players will use that memory as motivation come Saturday.
“This is a season of its own,” Swinney said. “This is one you live with every day. Other games, you win or lose and you move on quickly. But this is one that you carry with you all year long. It has a little more juice to it than a normal game.”