The annual rivalry game between Duke and North Carolina on the gridiron usually features fans dressed in layers and sporting warm hats on a crisp November day. Not this year.
The Blue Devils and Tar Heels will face off Sept. 23 in Chapel Hill, the first time the game will ever fall before the month of October. Michael Strickland, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for football operations who has been responsible for making the conference schedule since 2013, explained that the scheduling quirk was not a conscious decision to give an early spotlight to the Tobacco Road rivalry. It was simply the date that best fit Duke’s schedule.
ACC teams’ eight conference opponents and the sites of their games are locked in every year long before the dates of the games are set. Teams play the six other schools in their division and a permanent crossover opponent from the opposite division every year, as well as a predetermined rotating crossover opponent.
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When Strickland was looking for a team to match up against the Blue Devils in Week 4 for their ACC opener, Wake Forest, Virginia, Miami and Virginia Tech were off the table since they already had nonconference games scheduled for that week. That left North Carolina, Florida State, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech as potential options.
But Duke also made a request to the ACC to play on the road in Week 4 because it starts the season with three consecutive home games and did not want an imbalance with too much time on the road toward the end of its schedule. The Tar Heels were the only team of the four remaining possibilities the Blue Devils will play away from home.
“It was either ignore the request or give them an off week, which would have been a little bit earlier in the schedule than what we like,” Strickland said. “It worked in the Duke schedule and it worked in the North Carolina schedule, and it worked for the overall ACC schedule.”
Although the matchup has never been as early as it will be this year, Duke and North Carolina have not played in the last week of the regular season, which used to be an almost yearly occurrence, since 2013. Instead, this will be the fourth straight time the Tar Heels wrap up the year with their rivalry game against N.C. State.
“Four or five years ago, we looked at all our scheduling parameters and concepts, and we tried to zero in on a consistent rivalry Week 13,” Strickland said. “This was a league-wide decision that our athletic directors voted on and approved.”
The Wolfpack was picked to be North Carolina’s regular season-ending partner. Duke, on the other hand, now closes most years against its permanent “rival” Wake Forest.