Securing a victory in this rivalry would solidify a strong opening campaign for Fedora, especially considering North Carolina (5-3, 2-2 ACC) is ineligible for the postseason. N.C. State currently controls its own destiny in the Atlantic Division, but a loss would require a win at No. 18 Clemson and another conference loss by 12th-ranked Florida State for the Wolfpack to remain in the discussion.
UNC is favored by a surprising 7.5 points, a spread which speaks more to the Tar Heels' impressive statistics in Fedora's initial season in Chapel Hill. North Carolina ranks in the top-40 nationally in 14 statistical categories, including 21st in scoring offense (39.0 ppg) and 25th in scoring defense (19.3 ppg).
The offensive line serves as the foundation for UNC's success, allowing an ACC-best eight sacks all season and paving the way for running back Gio Bernard to average 132.5 rushing yards per game (5th nationally).
Bernard also leads the ACC in all-purpose yards (199.0 ypg) with an additional 224 receiving yards and 175 punt return yards.
They've moved [Bernard] around," N.C. State head coach Tom O'Brien said. "They can hand him the ball, they can throw him the ball. Anytime you're multi dimensional, that causes problems for the defense. The defense wants you to be one dimensional; the best should force you to be that way. Any time you have someone as talented as him, it puts great stress on the defense."
The Wolfpack will counter with a run defense that's allowing 127.4 yards per game (35th nationally) and a front seven that is effective at the line of scrimmage. N.C. State leads the ACC in sacks (3.1) and tackles for loss (8.4), which speaks to defensive coordinator Mike Archer's willingness to move extra defenders into the box and blitz.
North Carolina has felt the brunt of that front seven in recent years, managing minus-four rushing yards and suffering 11 sacks in the last two meetings.
"They're built for strength and they're built for power," UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. "If you run right at the teeth of them all night long and just butt heads with them, that's probably their strong suit. They've been running the same scheme for a while, so there's a lot of experience. And in games like this, that's going to serve you well."
North Carolina's defensive stats are more impressive on paper than the defense's play on the field has been this season, thanks to a pair of easy wins over Elon and Idaho.
N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon (162-of-278 passing, 1,988 yards, 14 TD, 7 INT) will attempt to capitalize against a UNC pass defense (233.4 ypg; 69th) forced to blitz out of zone coverage. The key for the Tar Heels will be in putting pressure on Glennon, who has thrown six interceptions in the Wolfpack's two losses, but only one in its five wins.
Saturday's contest may come down to emotion and intensity more so than statistics, the former being an area where N.C. State has held a decided advantage during its winning streak.
Fedora has embraced the rivalry aspect of this game to a greater extent than former UNC head coach Butch Davis, although he echoes similar beliefs with regard to approaching each game the same.
"One game doesn't ever make your season," Fedora said. "The way we've practiced and the way we've prepared has been the same. I'd be cheating all of the other games if I said, ‘Okay, we've been holding back and now this week we're really going to prepare hard.' … Our guys understand the importance of the game."
For the Tar Heel players, it's about ending one streak and starting another.
"They've beat us the last five years," UNC linebacker Tommy Heffernan said. "For the younger guys who have a couple of years left like myself, we want this for the seniors. We know we're going to have other opportunities, but there's nothing more important this weekend than to let that senior class graduate with beating N.C. State for the first time in their last time playing them."
A win on Saturday would improve UNC's record at Kenan Stadium to 5-0 this season and would mark the 11th win in 12 tries at home.