David Cutcliffe has seen a lot of rivalry games in his 29 seasons of coaching. He understands the unique nature of Duke-North Carolina.
"This one is different," the Blue Devil coach said. "First of all, the heat is on the basketball court. The rivalries I've been around have all been about the grass. What's different about it is that we can throw rocks at each other and hit each other. I've got a pretty good arm. We're that close. Geography makes it different."
Duke will travel the eight miles to Chapel Hill Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. game in Kenan Stadium. And while the game has huge local interest, Duke-Carolina is hardly a blip on the national scene - at least in football.
"When it comes to basketball, it's at the top - the best rivalry in all of college basketball - no ifs ands or buts about it," Cutcliffe said. "The reason it is, they both have been national championship contenders. They're playing at an extremely high level. That's what it takes to get you to become an Alabama-Auburn. Both of those programs have won national titles in the last few years. That brings a lot of history with it."
Cutcliffe said that both Duke and North Carolina have to elevate their programs to get to that level. But it would also help if the Blue Devils could be more competitive in the series.
"They've been good enough to beat us," he said. "We haven't been good enough to beat them."
UNC has won seven straight and 20 of the last 21 games in the series. Technically, it's five of the last seven and 18 of the last 21 since North Carolina voluntarily vacated its on-the-field victories in 2008 and 2009 as part of its self-imposed punishment for NCAA violations committed by the Tar Heel football program.
But the Duke players preparing for this year's game take no solace in vacated losses.
"Nobody on this team has ever beaten Carolina," fifth-year senior tight end Danny Parker said. "Winning this game means a lot to the guys in the senior class. It means a lot to the underclassmen too."
It's particularly frustrating for the Duke players since they've been so close in the series. Six of the last eight losses have been by a touchdown or less. In 2006, Duke scored what should have been the game-tying touchdown in the final minute, but missed the crucial extra point. A year later, the Devils had a chip shot field goal in regulation to win, then missed another field goal in overtime.
Since Cutcliffe arrived, Duke has suffered a 28-20 loss in 2008, a 19-6 loss (that was 12-6 until the final minutes) in 2009 and a 24-19 loss last season.
"It's been a long time," junior quarterback Sean Renfree said "To come close so many times since I've been here and even before I was here ... so it's been frustrating for me and I'm not a senior. The seniors have really felt some frustration."
Matt Daniels is one senior who has been frustrated, especially with the way that UNC has physically overpowered the Blue Devils.
"It kind of seems like that's what they do - just big-boy us, run right at us," the senior safety said. "Two years ago, they probably ran the ball like 43 times. From watching film from last year, they ran the same play on us like 29 times - it was a running play, a power action."
He said the Devils can expect more of the same unless they play more physically.
"I think being able to big-boy up for the first play of the game and show that they are not going to be able to knock us down and run all over us will definitely make a statement," Daniels said.
That kind of statement could win Duke the Victory Bell - the symbol of the rivalry - for the first time since UNC re-claimed it with a 2004 win in Wade Stadium.
"The only person in the program who has gotten to ring the bell is Coach Collins," sophomore cornerback Ross Cockrell said. Collins is linebacker coach Jim Collins, who was a member of Steve Spurrier's staff when the Blue Devils defeated UNC in back-to-back matchups in 1988 and 1989.
Daniels has his eyes on the Bell too.
"This game means everything," he said. "I know the Duke community and the fans want this win probably even more than I want this win - and I want it really bad. Just bringing back the Victory Bell and ringing it is definitely going to bring joy to my heart. This season comes down to this game and this game only."
No matter what happens Saturday in Chapel Hill, this senior class has already established itself as the winningest senior class at Duke since the 1995 seniors graduated with 16 career wins. The current seniors have 15 wins to their credit and could match the '95 seniors with a win at UNC.
"I was actually thinking about that the other day," Daniels said. "It's a good thing, but at the same time it's not so much of a good thing. It's something to be proud about that we're the winningest class, but at the same time we had the opportunity to be greater than we are now. We just didn't take the opportunities by the throat when we had them. It's kind of a bittersweet feeling."
Danny Parker, a fifth-years senior, considers that he has 16 wins already, since he played on the one-win 2008 team, then on three of Coach Cut's four Duke teams. He redshirted in 2010, but still counts that team's three wins.
"I count myself [as a member of the '10 team] because I was giving them a good look on scout team," Parker said.
Daniels said that the outcome of the Carolina game will have a big impact on his perception of his career.
"It would help me realize that I actually left Duke a better place than I found it," he said.
Upon reflection, he suggested that he's already achieved that.
"I've put my all into this program," he said. "I think we're definitely on the rise. It's kind of a behind the scenes thing -- a culture here that we're bring in. It's integrating the freshmen and having them understand the work ethic we have here."
That's Daniels' greatest legacy, according to Cutcliffe. While repeating his earlier claim that his senior safety has played at an All-America level this season, he said Daniels - and his classmates -- greatest contribution may have been on the practice field.
"I am very proud of our seniors," the Duke coach said. "They are deeply on my mind. I just kept looking at each one of them that could practice [Tuesday] morning. I was watching Matt Daniels' body language on that field. His intensity and his effort on the last Tuesday of practice for Duke and you would have thought he was a freshman, trying to make the squad.
"Their leadership and their legacy will be - not quite what we wanted in the wins - but their legacy will be resiliency. Their legacy will be that they have shown every young player on this squad, regardless of the outcome of the game, it made no difference. So, I'm very appreciative of those seniors."
Cutcliffe has played five true freshmen this season - two wide receivers (Jamison Crowder and Blair Holliday), two linebackers (David Helton and Jonathan Woodruff) and safety Britton Grier (who has largely been used on special teams).
That leaves 15 recruited freshmen who are redshirting, including four offensive linemen, a tight end, a wide receiver, four defensive linemen, a linebacker, a punter and three defensive backs.
It's too early to say which will be impact players next season, but Duke's veterans are impressed by the young talent they see on the practice field.
"I know that every single one of them has a fire," sophomore Ross Cockrell said, when asked about the three freshmen defensive backs in waiting. "They want to be on the field. They want to play and they want to contribute to the program."
That's going to create competition going into next season.
"It's going to be a battle in the spring," Cockrell said. "You're going to have your upperclassmen and you're going to have these guys coming off their redshirt and there is going to be a battle for every position on the field."
Daniels said the youngsters have the talent to make a big impact.
"This entire freshman class has a lot of ability, a lot of potential and talent," he said. "Guys like [cornerback] Tim Burton, who actually gives us a look on scout team. Last week, he played [Georgia Tech quarterback] Tevin Washington and I think he might have run the option better than Tevin Washington did in the game.
"So there are guys like Tim and [cornerback] Jared Boyd and [safety] Chris Taveras from a defensive standpoint that I really expect for them to make a lot of impact on this defense next year. Those guys have what it takes, I think."
A LATE BLOOMER
Conor Irwin played just 13 snaps in his first three seasons at Duke. He had only played a little more than that through the first 10 games this season.
But Saturday against Georgia Tech, the 6-4, 285-pounder from Knoxville, Tn., started and went almost the whole way at center.
"It was exciting for me," Irwin said. "I've been pushing for that a long time. It's good to finally earn my first start. Obviously, the results weren't what we were looking for as a team, but it was a good learning experience for me. It's something I can take forward for sure."
Individually, Irwin performed well - he had just one low snap from center and graded well as a blocker. He helped the banged-up Duke offense gain 351 total yards and score 31 points against one of the ACC's No. 6 ranked defense.
That was the most points Duke had scored against an ACC opponent all season.
"In the second half, we threw the ball a lot and I think we did a pretty good job of picking up their pressure and their blitzes," Irwin said. "So, I was pretty pleased over all."
It was gratifying for Irwin to play so well in his first start, since it was beginning to look like that start might never come. In preseason, he was listed as the No. 2 center, but when starter Brian Moore broke his arm, the staff moved starting guard David Harding to center and kept Irwin on the second team.
He was asked if that decision was tough to swallow.
"It was at times, but I was willing to accept that role," he said. "I hated it for Brian, but David went in and did a real good job. I just had to be ready for whenever my number was called."
That call came a week ago as the injuries on the offensive line forced the staff to shuffle the rotation. So far this season, Duke has started three different players at center, four different players at guard and three different players at tackle.
The good news is that just one of those offensive line starters - injured tackle Kyle Hill - is a senior. Duke will have a lot of experience up front coming back next season.
SOMETHING TO SHOOT FOR
A number of Duke players have a chance to reach some significant individual goals in the final game of the season.
Varner needs one more catch top become the sixth player in ACC history to top 200 career receptions. With seven receptions (a total he's reached 13 previous times in his career), Varner could become the first player in ACC history with three straight seasons of 60 receptions.
Vernon needs four receptions at UNC to reach the 200 reception mark for his career. With a year to go, the junior receiver should make a run at the ACC career record (232 catches by Clemson's Aaron Kelly) next year, if he stays healthy.
Vernon already has 68 catches this season - his second straight year over 60-plus. He needs seven catches Saturday to break Wes Chesson's 41-year-old school record of 74 receptions in a season. He needs 61 receiving yards to top 1,000 yards for the season.
Just three players in Duke history have record a 1,000-yard receiving season - Clarkston Hines (three times), Wes Chesson and Donovan Varner (in 2009).
Sean Renfree needs 262 yards passing to become the second Duke quarterback and the fifth quarterback in ACC history to reach 3,000 passing yards in two straight seasons. He's also on pace to break Ben Bennett's 1983 record for competition percentage in a season - Renfree enters the UNC game at 65.0 percent, ahead of Bennett's 64.0 percent in '83.
Senior safety Matt Daniels needs one more pass breakup to tie Erwin Sampson's school single-season record of 15 PBUs in 1989.