Who will rule Tobacco Road in '09?

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

On Tuesday afternoon, Tim Hall of 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh stumped me with a question: Which team in the state of North Carolina will be better this fall, North Carolina or NC State?

It's a question I've gotten in the mailbag, too.

Andrew in Charlotte, N.C. wrote: Which North Carolina team do you see going the farthest this season and why?

First of all, don't count out Wake Forest, even though the Demon Deacons lost some of their best defensive players to come through the program. Riley Skinner is one of the winningest quarterbacks in the league, and he's got a much better and deeper supporting cast to work with this fall. But I do think UNC and NC State are the teams to beat this year on Tobacco Road. Don't forget that Tom O'Brien and the Wolfpack owned the state last year with wins over East Carolina, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Duke. Nate Irving played in all of those games, though.

Here's how the Carolina schools stacked up in the last ACC Power Rankings:

NC State
North Carolina
Wake Forest

Since then, Irving, NC State's top playmaker on defense has suffered serious injuries in a car accident, and Dominique Ellis, a potential starter in the secondary, has decided to leave the program. Meanwhile, North Carolina's young receivers are still unproven and kicker Jay Wooten has decided to transfer. Both of these teams have a few issues.

NC State appears to be stronger on offense, and North Carolina probably has the better defense. The two will face each other in the regular season-finale on Nov. 28 in Raleigh. It's the first end-of-the-year meeting at NC State since 1995. And who knows? Irving might be back to his old self by then.

So who wins?

Carolina. The Tar Heels return a league-high nine starters on defense, including the entire defensive line. They've got an efficient quarterback in T.J. Yates. And they've got a talented tandem of running backs in Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston who will help take some pressure off of the young receivers. The departure of Ellis and possible loss of Irving isn't going to knock the Wolfpack out of the running for the Atlantic Division, but it definitely won't help their chances.