TOBIN: The South’s (almost obsolete) oldest rivalry
The term “rivalry” implies a back-and-forth competition between two opponents for a prize. Certain sports rivalries — Celtics versus Lakers, Cowboys versus Redskins and Yankees versus Red Sox — are famous for their intensity and unpredictable outcomes each time the teams take the court or field.
Yet, the “South’s oldest rivalry” — the matchup between North Carolina and Virginia football — can hardly be called a rivalry this decade.
First playing the Tar Heels in 1892, the Cavaliers emerged victorious, 30-18. But, when the teams met again that year, the Carolina blue and white had its revenge over the orange and blue and claimed victory.
This tit-for-tat mentality did not stop in 1892. Since 1919, the teams have played against each other every single season. North Carolina currently leads the series 62-54-4. While the Tar Heels have had the Cavaliers’ number in Chapel Hill, N.C., the matchup has been even in Charlottesville with each team winning 24 games.
On paper, this rivalry has lived up to its expectations in the 21st century. With each team winning eight games, it seems like there is a back-and-forth nature to the matchup. Yet, for the past six seasons — the entirety of former Virginia coach Mike London’s tenure — the Tar Heels have emerged victorious each meeting.
And these games haven’t even been close, either. On average, the Cavaliers have lost each game against North Carolina by 19 points. Per usual, the Cavalier defense was abysmal, giving up just under 35 points per game.
If this continues, the “South’s oldest rivalry” might as well be renamed the “South’s (almost obsolete) oldest rivalry.”
This upcoming Saturday will be the 121st meeting between the two teams. Only one rivalry between two power-conference teams — Minnesota and Wisconsin — has seen more matchups.
If Virginia wants to make this a real rivalry again and earn a signature victory for coach Bronco Mendenhall’s inaugural season, it’s time to put up a fight against North Carolina.
Regardless of the difference in their records, this upcoming game is crucial for both teams. For the No. 22 Tar Heels (5-2, 3-1 ACC), this game represents a chance to build off their momentum from beating then-No. 16 Miami last week. For the Cavaliers, this game represents a chance to bounce back after a nasty loss to Pitt last week and to remain in bowl contention.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this matchup is its implications for the winner of the ACC Coastal Division. Currently, North Carolina leads the division with three wins and one loss in conference play. Yet, three other teams — Pitt, Virginia Tech and Virginia — all have only one loss in ACC play as well.
Even if it were to win this matchup, Virginia has very slim chances of making it to the ACC Championship in Orlando, Fla. Dec. 3. But, that does not mean Virginia cannot play as a spoiler for the Tar Heels’ chances.
If Virginia emerges victorious in this matchup, it will be an extremely difficult road to Orlando for North Carolina. Having already lost to Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels would need to win-out in the ACC following a loss to the Cavaliers and see the Hokies lose twice more in conference play (considering that the Hokies own the tiebreaker). Basically, North Carolina would not be control of its own destiny anymore if it loses to Virginia Saturday.
This would not be the first time Virginia has dismantled North Carolina’s season. In 1996, the Cavaliers upset the then-No. 6 Tar Heels in the third to last game of the season, thwarting the team’s chances at making a BCS.
This matchup provided everything one would expect with a rivalry game. Although North Carolina was a better team at the time, having eight wins compared to Virginia’s six, the records were thrown out the window. And, although the Tar Heels had a 17-3 lead in the fourth quarter, Virginia miraculously put up 17 unanswered points to win the game 20-17.
It was games like these that made the “South’s oldest rivalry” must-watch television in the last quarter of the 20th century. But, the past six seasons have provided anything but excitement (with the exception of a 28-27 North Carolina victory in 2014). This Saturday provides an opportunity for Virginia to not only get its season back on track, but also to settle the score against North Carolina and inject some life into what has become a lopsided rivalry.
Ben Tobin is a weekly sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TobinBen.