Unofficial state championship begins in North Carolina

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

So it's not North Carolina, Wake Forest or Duke. Heck, it's not even East Carolina. It's Gardner-Webb, but when it comes to NC State repeating as self-proclaimed champs in what has been dubbed by some the "mythical state championship," it counts.

"I think certainly you want to be good in your home state, and it's been a point of emphasis," said NC State coach Tom O'Brien. "It was called to our attention last year and we decided to go ahead and try to do that thing. This is the first time we have to go onto the field and defend it. We'll certainly try to do our best on Saturday."

Actually, O'Brien was the one who called it to everyone's attention. He stirred things up on Tobacco Road last year when, following the Pack's 41-10 drubbing of North Carolina he said, "We're the best football program in the state, without question."

He had some grounds for the claim: The Pack beat UNC, ECU, Wake Forest and Duke.

On Saturday, NC State will host Gardner-Webb, a school with an enrollment of 4,100 in Boiling Springs, N.C. They'll also have to beat Wake Forest on the road, Duke at home, and end the regular season with a home win against the Tar Heels if they're going to continue to lay claim to being the "best football program in the state."

UNC and Wake Forest also have an opportunity this weekend to assert their programs within the state, as the Deacs host Elon, and UNC will host East Carolina.

"Even though it's not a conference opponent, it's a big game," said UNC coach Butch Davis. "... These kids know each other, the alumni all know each other. They live next door to each other. They are always significant games just because of the nature and the proximity, and North Carolina more than maybe any of the states that I've ever been in, just because you've got NC State, East Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest -- You've got five schools within probably 2.5 hours of each other which is really, really unusual. That just creates a different atmosphere than some other games would've created."

It also creates the possibility for an unofficial state championship. And it starts tomorrow.