Winning the “State” Championship

            We all went to high school in the U.S. Well, maybe that’s much of a generalization. If you are reading this, chances are that you went to high school in the U.S. and that you understand the idea and concepts of a “state” championship, whether that is in the form of football, basketball, baseball, cheerleading, chess team, quiz bowl, etc. Hopefully, you get the idea. If you are reading this post, chances are that you are familiar with college football and the idea of rivalries, which similar to their high school counterparts, tend to have matchups every season where the alumni and fan-bases go at each other prior and after the game or match take place.

            One current topic of sports conversation that we have in North Carolina is whether continuing to host these rivalries between colleges and universities in our state are worth the price they take in other areas, primarily the concept of strength of schedule. Is continuing a rivalry with a perceived inferior program worth the loss of schedule strength that you would have gotten matching up against another school or program? For some die-hard fans of “in-state” and local rivalries this may seem like a no-brainer: save the rivalry! But even though the local fans may love the in-state rivalry, is the perception and opinion of athletic directors and coaches the same? Maybe not.

            It’s Thursday, September 26th, and the East Carolina University Pirates will be making their way to Kenan Memorial Stadium this weekend, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to play the North Carolina Tar Heels in an in-state matchup that is considered part of the fantasized “State Championship” here. There is no such thing as the State Championship, but a school can lay claim to it when they defeat all the other major FBS programs in the state.

The last time this happened was in the 2008 season when the North Carolina State Wolfpack defeated Wake Forest, Duke, North Carolina, and East Carolina all in one season—the Wolfpack will get another chance at it this 2013 season.

But the reality is that it isn’t a real title and the only people who will care at the end of it all are the fans and alumni of the school who may win them all. Nevertheless, the fans care about these in-state games; it doesn’t matter how pathetic the other in-state program may be—the fans care and they will pay money to go watch any in-state matchup you put on the schedule. There is pride at stake. There is history at stake. There is a year’s worth of bragging right at stake. Why wouldn’t you schedule these matchups?

One problem that develops, from the angle of coaches and athletics directors, is when these in-state rivalries create matchups between perceived superior programs in the area (ex. UNC, NC State) and perceived inferior programs in the area (ex. East Carolina, Duke). This is a problem for the higher-ups because if you are AD at UNC or NC State and your school plays an inferior in-state rival and you win, you get no real ranking benefit from this matchup—just bragging right. At the same time, if you have these matchups, and your school loses (for some crazy, mystical reason) then you look terrible against a team who is perceived inferior to yours nationwide. Strength of schedule is also damaged because as a head coach of ADs you could have schedule a much stronger opponent within or outside your conference—but no, you had to schedule the in-state rivalry, so you didn’t schedule Notre Dame, South Carolina, or Georgia.

            There is definitely a lot that goes into decided whether in-state rivalries, especially those OUTSIDE your conference (ex. ECU, Appalachian State) are worth holding onto. There is the history and legacy that as university leadership and staff you want to preserve, but there is also the logistical and pragmatic side of the college football system in which there is also much to lose.

            If someone asked me, I would say, “To heck with the system. Schedule all the in-state rivalries we can put up in the schedule.” My opinion is that if one day the NCAA or the regionally-dominant conferences fall apart, and all we have left are the local state rivalries, we are going to wish we had kept the history and legacy alive. Who cares if they are historically or currently inferior teams? Few games bring out as much passion out of the fans and out of the players as these in-state matchups that, if you win them all, can lead to claiming the so-called State Championship. 

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