From Seminoles (1997) To Gamecocks (2023),
UNC Steps Into Rare ESPN GameDay Spotlight
(App State, NCSU, Wake Forest Have Hosted, Too)

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

When ESPN’s popular traveling circus known as College GameDay visits Charlotte for its weekly live national broadcast on Saturday morning, it will be visiting the state of North Carolina for only the eighth time in its 31-year history as an on-site production.

UNC’s matchup in the Queen City against South Carolina will mark just the second time the Tar Heels have been featured on GameDay — almost 26 years after the first time.

Remarkably, this is only the third time that a North Carolina-based school has been central to the inspiration for a visit from GameDay (9 am-noon, ESPN/ESPNU/ESPN App), and the Tar Heels now have been responsible for two of those three trips.

Three times, games played in Charlotte involved only out-of-state programs. (See list below.) Twice, the main attraction was an out-of-state team ranked at or near No. 1 nationally that happened to be visiting a North Carolina-based opponent.

The only three exceptions have been (1) the 1997 North Carolina squad that was one of the best in school history; (2) the 2022 Appalachian State team that captured the nation’s attention by shocking #6 Texas A&M 17-14 in College Station last Sept. 10, then learned that same night it would host GameDay for the Mountaineers’ Sept. 17 game in Boone against Troy, and (3) this year’s UNC team, led by quarterback Drake Maye, the 2022 ACC player of the year, potential 2023 Heisman Trophy candidate and likely first-round National Football League draft pick.

The national audiences for both Saturday night ABC games and GameDay can be enormous.

In 2022, the Notre Dame-Ohio State game played in the same time slot and on the same channel as this year’s UNC-South Carolina matchup (first Saturday in September, 7:30 pm, ABC) drew 10.5 million viewers. That ended up being the fifth-highest audience of college football’s entire regular season last year, behind only Michigan-Ohio State (17.1 million), Tennessee-Georgia (13.1 million), Alabama-Tennessee (11.6 million) and Alabama-Texas (10.6 million).

Even a more typical Saturday night game on ABC usually draws an audience of 3 million to 7 million. During UNC’s 2022 regular season, only its Sept. 24 home contest against Notre Dame (3.5 million, 3:30 pm, ABC) and its Nov. 25 home matchup against NC State (3.6 million, 3:30 pm, ABC) ended up in — or even near — that lofty range.

Early last season, when Rece Davis (host), Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard, Pat McAfee and friends were in Austin, Texas, setting the stage for #1 Alabama’s matchup against the Longhorns, the final hour of their GameDay broadcast had an average audience of 2.7 million viewers. On a typical college football weekend, only the five to 10 highest-profile games draw greater viewership than that.

“The goal of every segment of College GameDay is to evoke some kind of emotion. We want viewers to learn something and be entertained,” Davis said. “Fortunately, over many years now, college football fans have responded to that approach in a very big way. … The show has been successful because of its people — on and off the air.”

“GameDay is a bunch of college kids — some inebriated, some not — with cute signs,” Howard said. “But it’s all in good fun. It’s not like people are attacking our limos or anything.”

While the state of North Carolina is famous for being the center of the college basketball universe, among many other sports accolades, it only rarely steps into the major college football spotlight, where its teams’ highlights historically have been much less prominent.

The College GameDay archives reflect this reality.

For example, many individual schools have hosted GameDay far more often than the entire state of North Carolina, which has seven teams (App State, Charlotte, Duke, East Carolina, UNC, NC State, Wake Forest) playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level. College football superpowers Ohio State (22) and Alabama (16) lead that GameDay list, meaning the Buckeyes have hosted almost three times more often than all North Carolina cities/schools combined.

Long-time UNC fans may remember GameDay’s first visit to the state of North Carolina. Coach Bobby Bowden and #2 Florida State (8-0) visited coach Mack Brown and #5 UNC (8-0) in Chapel Hill for a late-season tilt, with the ACC title (there was no conference championship game format back then) and national championship implications hanging in the balance.

Outside of the College Football Playoff and its various predecessors, matchups between top-five opponents don’t happen often, and this one ranked among the most anticipated regular-season games in ACC football history.

(Side note: In my 36 years of covering college sports, that 1997 Carolina team still ranks as the best NC-based football team I’ve seen, and that FSU-UNC game still ranks as the loudest I’ve ever heard Kenan Stadium. There was an overflow crowd of 62,000-plus, and the upper deck literally was vibrating from the noise.)

The Seminoles ended up celebrating Bowden’s 68th birthday with a 20-3 victory, in a game truly dominated by defense. FSU, which had joined the ACC in 1992, improved its all-time conference record to 46-1, the only loss coming in a nailbiter at Virginia in 1995.

The Tar Heels beat their other 11 opponents that season by an average score of 31-11, including a 42-3 annihilation of Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. No UNC football team has ever had a better combination of NFL talent (nine future first- or second-round picks), final record (11-1) and end-of-season national ranking (#4 coaches poll; #6 Associated Press).

Despite the disappointing result from Carolina’s perspective, the pre-game buzz, Franklin Street festivities, NFL-caliber talent (on both teams) and raucous Kenan Stadium atmosphere all ultimately lived up to the week-long GameDay hype.

Now UNC — in a different city, and against a less imposing (though still high-quality) opponent — finally gets another turn in ESPN’s famous college football spotlight. Almost twenty-six years after Carolina’s disappointing loss to FSU, it’s up to the 2023 Tar Heels to give this year’s story a happier ending.

ESPN College GameDay Visits To North Carolina

All-Time Results (Date, City, Teams/Result)

By NC City: Charlotte (4), Boone (1), Chapel Hill (1), Raleigh (1), Winston-Salem (1).

By NC School: UNC (2), Appalachian State (1), NC State (1), Wake Forest (1). Note: Three of the games played in North Carolina featured only out-of-state teams. Also: Four in-state schools (East Carolina, NC Central, NC State, UNC) have been part of at least one out-of-state College GameDay event.

By Year: 2020 (2), 1997 (1), 2004 (1), 2017 (1), 2021 (1), 2022 (1), 2023 (1).

(NOTE: On this week’s David Glenn Show, DG tackled this College GameDay topic, talked sports in a lengthy 1-on-1 interview with North Carolina governor Roy Cooper, and offered “Something To Celebrate” in the sports world right now, plus “Three Things To Watch” — beyond college football and the NFL — in the sports world as the calendar turns to September. Please watch at the link below … and please subscribe to our YouTube channel and podcast!)