The Final Four fantasy came true in 2022.
Bitter rivals Duke and North Carolina will meet for the first time in the NCAA tournament in a matchup of programs that have combined for 11 national championships and 38 Final Four appearances. The added bonus is this will be legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season and Duke has a chance to avenge the loss to the Tar Heels in his final home game on March 5.
It’s on the short list of most-anticipated semifinal matchups ever, and of course, we’re going to make the transition to football rivalries. Could the College Football Playoff ever produce a semifinal matchup of this magnitude? What would be the equivalent?
The 2014 Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Ohio State remains the most-watched CFP semifinal of the last eight years, but Duke-North Carolina is more than a coaching rivalry between Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer.
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There are only a few hypothetical CFP matchup that could get in the Duke-North Carolina stratosphere. Here is that short list:
We’ve seen Alabama play rematches against LSU in the BCS championship and Georgia in the CFP championship, but what if there was an Iron Bowl rematch? Could either fan-base handle it? How many more callers on “The Paul Finebaum Show” would land on the naughty list over the holidays?
The in-state fanaticism factor would be close, but there is so much on the line in the regular-season matchup in this case. Had there been a four-team playoff in 2013, there would have been an Alabama-Auburn rematch after the “Kick Six” with the Crimson Tide’s bid for a three-peat in-tact.
That would be close, but it didn’t happen. What could? Picture Nick Saban’s final season. Auburn and Alabama play for the SEC West championship in the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa, and the Tigers win. The Crimson Tide back-doors into the CFP as a No. 4 seed and play the SEC champion a month later.
That’s the college football Coach K script that unfolded this year.
A Florida-Florida State-Miami combo
Since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985, Duke and North Carolina have combined for 10 national championships. Florida, Florida State and Miami have combined for 10 national championships in football in the same stretch.
These games were NFL scouting combines that masqueraded as top-10 matchups for most of the 1990s and 2000s. It was appointment television, but we know the problem. The Florida-Florida State Sugar Bowl in 1997 was a national championship rematch, but it turned into a 52-20 blowout.
These rivalries have faded from the national consciousness because all three are in various rebuilding phases. Mike Norvell, Billy Napier and Mario Cristobal all are trying to restore that past glory.
The rivalry hatred and conference dominance factor is there. Oklahoma and Texas have combined for 17 Big 12 championships in 26 years since 1996. Granted, the Sooners have won 14 of those championships, but the conference runs through those two schools.
Guess how many ACC tournament championships North Carolina and Duke have won since 1996? If you guessed 17, then you might also know that Duke has 12 and North Carolina have five in the same stretch.
The dynamics are the same, and the Red River Rivalry in the Cotton Bowl carries just as much pageantry as the home-and-home series at the Dean Smith Center and Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Now, this rivalry has fresh coaches and will soon have a more prestigious league. Can Steve Sarkisian and Brent Venables push these programs into the national championship discussion every year at the same time?
This still is the best answer to Duke-North Carolina.
The Game has its own historians. In 2016, former Michigan sports information director Bruce Madej tried to grasp what a CFP matchup between Ohio State and Michigan would feel like while swapping stories with New York Times bestselling author John U. Bacon and Ohio State historian Jack Park.
“I don’t know if that would be the Ten Year War,” Madej said before pounding a table. “But it would start something that would be unbelievable.”
The high point of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is comparable to this week’s Duke-North Carolina matchup. The No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in 2006 was a de facto semifinal in the BCS era, and it was played in the aftermath of Michigan coach Bo Schembechler’s death.
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Transpose that emotion into a playoff game, which was an outside possibility after the 2016 double-overtime thriller, then you would have the best combination of a national rivalry and success that could match Blue Devils-Tar Heels.
Why this UNC-Duke game tops them all
A case can be made for all of these college football rivalries, but they have drawbacks.
Auburn and Alabama have played just eight top-10 showdowns in its history. Duke-North Carolina has had 28 top-10 showdowns since 1980. They play twice as much, but it’s a huge difference just the same. A Saban farewell game in the CFP, however, would be closed.
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The Florida schools are not acting like elite programs right now. Florida State won a national title in 2013 and made a CFP appearance in 2014. Miami and Florida have yet to make the four-team playoff. There is a long way to go before we can picture that head-to-head matchup. Let’s see one of these schools win a conference championship first.
The nature of the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry is going to change when they go to the SEC. It’s still going to be huge, but it was the main attraction in the Big 12. In the SEC, it is going to have to earn its keep as a top-five game in the conference every year.
Ohio State-Michigan has been controlled by the Buckeyes in the 21st century. Ohio State is 17-4 against the Wolverines since 2000. Duke is 30-22 against North Carolina in that same stretch, and Krzyzewski had a 22-18 record against Roy Williams from 2003-2021. That’s balance, and every great rivalry needs it.
In this instance, with this game, it’s going to be difficult for a singular college football game to move the needle more than this game, with the backdrop of this possibly being Coach K’s final game. It’s not even the national championship game, but it will feel like one.
Will the Duke-North Carolina rivalry diminish with Hubert Davis and Jon Scheyer, who played at those schools? Maybe, but it’s still going to be a huge rivalry. It’s not going to drop off overnight.
Duke-North Carolina combines all the elements of those four college football rivalries. The in-state hatred of Auburn-Alabama. The pro-talent pipeline of the Florida schools. The conference dominance of Oklahoma-Texas, and the Arthurian qualities of Ohio State-Michigan. It all comes together in one night, and it’s impossible to top, even on a college football field.
Any thought to the contrary at this point would be a fantasy of its own.