"I told our team they've helped create what is hopefully a big-game atmosphere," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "These are the kinds of games you want to play. ... You can't have a big game without it being a tough game. And so you have to learn - that's one of the things we've got to do - to embrace tough football games."
The Blue Devils (5-2, 2-1) certainly have plenty of chances coming up to do just that.
They won five of their first six games - their best start since the 1994 team opened 7-0 - and need just one more win to qualify for their first bowl game since then. But including last week's 41-20 loss at Virginia Tech, Duke is 1-40 since 2004 against the final six teams on the schedule.
For the Tar Heels (5-2, 2-1), a bowl is out of the question because they're serving an NCAA-imposed one-year postseason ban, and even if they win the Coastal, they can't claim it, under of a new ACC policy. But they can still exert some measure of influence on the division race and are looking to set the foundation for future seasons under new coach Larry Fedora.
"We want to prove something this year," safety Tre Boston said. "We don't have a bowl game, so we only have a few more games to prove what we're about this year, and not only for this year but it's about the future for North Carolina. Coach definitely came here with a plan and we're trying to execute it for him and get us rolling. I think if we continue to do what we're doing now we'll head in the right path."
North Carolina has dominated Duke lately, winning 21 of 22 meetings with its close rival, including eight in a row. The last time the Blue Devils beat the Tar Heels at Wallace Wade Stadium was in 1988 - when Steve Spurrier coached Duke and Mack Brown was on the North Carolina sideline.
"The culture we're trying to create is, every game is the most important game, the next game is the most important game," Fedora said. "It's still about how you prepare. It's about preparation and our energy level. I'm hoping our guys do exactly what we've done the last three or four weeks. I want the same intensity level in practice. That's what I want. I don't need to see anything different. If we just match what we've been doing, then I feel like we'll be OK."
Both teams boast of talented skill players - Duke's Conner Vernon set the ACC's career receptions record two weeks ago; UNC's Gio Bernard would lead the league in rushing had he played in enough games - but this one figures to be decided in the trenches.
No ACC team has more sacks than Blue Devils' 18, but their defensive front is bracing for a test from a veteran North Carolina offensive line that has allowed a league-best four sacks and cleared enough holes for Bernard to average 130 yards.
"It's just a matter of being able to make plays against the defense we're playing," Bernard said. "They're giving us a couple of open holes, and I think with this team, this offense, this tempo we've shown everybody we have, things are just starting to open up."
Duke has started the same five offensive linemen all season, and of the nine sacks they've given up, seven have come in the losses to Stanford and Virginia Tech. They'll be challenged by a Tar Heels defense that averages nearly three sacks per game.
"Think about how many (linemen) we have that have played against this great line from North Carolina and other great lines in the ACC," Cutcliffe said. "That won't make it any easier, but they understand it."