It takes decades to establish rivalries, but for two schools that have only met annually for the past 15 years, North Carolina and Virginia Tech have developed quite a bit of history.
The recruiting battles have been nearly as intense as the games, whether it was Carolina clinching the 2015 Coastal Division title in Blacksburg to spoil Frank Beamer’s final home game or the shocking rally for the Hokies last season in Chapel Hill that served as one of the final nails in the coffin of the Larry Fedora era.
There’s even the courtship of Beamer himself, who revealed in an autobiography that he had verbally accepted the Carolina job in 2000 before deciding to stick around at his alma mater and build a program that has ultimately set the standard in the Coastal, advancing to the ACC Championship Game six times.
There’s no substitute for the football rivalry with N.C. State, but could Virginia Tech be a close second?
Mack Brown didn’t quite go that far.
“Everybody has that theory, ABC, 'Anybody But Carolina,’” Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “When we’re good and we’re doing well in recruiting right now, everybody hates us, so everybody’s a rival.
“We’re going to recruit the state of Virginia, we’re going to recruit Virginia Beach. Always, Virginia and Virginia Tech are factors there.”
What exactly makes a good rivalry?
In “The Psychology of Rivalry: A Relationally Dependent Analysis of Competition,” published in The Academy of Management Journal, the authors determine that rivalries are defined by, “Competitors' relationships, determined by their proximity, attributes, and prior competitive interactions, influence the subjective intensity of rivalry between them, which in turn affects their competitive behavior.”
Proximity? Aside from the Big Four schools, Virginia Tech is the closest ACC school at 200 miles away.
Attributes? The Hokies have had the type of football success in the ACC that the Tar Heels want to achieve — and believe they can — with their commitment to resources and the fact that they’re often pulling from the same talent pool.
Prior competitive interactions? Just take the past four.
After Carolina’s double-overtime win sent Beamer out with a loss in 2015, the Hokies crushed the Tar Heels 34-3 in the middle of Hurricane Matthew as the Tar Heels couldn’t move the ball without Mitch Trubisky’s passing ability.
Virginia Tech fans took great pleasure in needling their counterparts over that one, and this week, defensive coordinator Bud Foster singled it out as his favorite in the series.
“We went down there and played in the monsoon, and we played really well,’ he said. “We focused on what we could control and not the outside elements.”
That game marked a turning point for Carolina, going from contention for a Coastal title to a 4-4 finish followed by the struggles of the past two seasons.
Virginia Tech has taken great pleasure in adding to that pain with two very different victories that had similarly devastating effects.
In 2017, it was a 59-7 embarrassment in Blacksburg that showed just how quickly the Tar Heels had fallen, and last season, the Hokies forced a late turnover and drove 99 yards to score, snuffing out what could have been a momentum-building victory.
Fifth-year lineman Aaron Crawford, a native of Ashburn, Va., has heard a little more trash talk from his high school classmates than he’d like after the three losses, but the blowout sticks out the most.
“That was probably the worst out of the three,” he said, “But, we lost three in a row to them. In my mind, it’s just, ‘Got to get back.’”
Crawford is one of seven Tar Heels from the Commonwealth, while the Hokies have 17 North Carolinians on the roster — something they’ve made a priority and a point of pride, using the #NC2VT hashtag to celebrate their recruiting success across state lines.
Brown has been open about Carolina’s need to keep the state’s best players home, and if there was any doubt as to whether that’s on his mind this week, he just happened to mention the powerhouse program of Hokie quarterback Hendon Hooker by name on Monday.
‘Since they've changed quarterbacks to Hendon Hooker, who’s from Dudley, they've really done well,” Brown said.
Since the 2016 class, the Hokies have gotten five four-star recruits out of North Carolina, including big-time Carolina targets in Dax Hollifield and Tre Turner.
Brown doesn’t believe Saturday will affect this season’s recruiting class, but there’s no doubt a victory for the Tar Heels would make a difference in the future.
“Maybe it affects recruiting two years down the road, but I’ve never felt like a game affected current recruiting because the kids have already made their decisions,” he said.
Perhaps most importantly in forming a rivalry, North Carolina is a logical destination for Virginia Tech graduates that aren’t heading to Richmond, Northern Virginia or the Tidewater.
The Charlotte alumni chapter is the largest outside of Virginia with more than 3,800 members. The Triad chapter says it has more than 2,000 graduates while the Triangle bills itself as one of the school’s largest.
When the Hokies play on the road in North Carolina, it isn’t much like a road game and it never will be.
And this might not be a rivalry yet, but there's been some darn good football.
The only thing truly lacking has been consistent excellence from Carolina.
Take that darn good football, talented players, proximity and familiarity over an extended period, add in an improved Tar Heel program and the Coastal Division has just the rivalry it needs.
“When I look at these games with the exception of one or two, maybe they have been a sixty-minute football game,” Foster said. “We’ve had to play from the opening whistle to the final whistle. I’m expecting we are going to have to go play that way this year.”