By: Conner Handel
The college football playoff has produced no shortage of controversy for the sporting world. This time last year the only remaining undefeated team, Florida State, entered the ACC Championship game barely clinging to the final playoff spot as the four seed, which sparked some questions. Could the committee leave out the only undefeated team in the nation? At the same time, TCU had one loss to a top six team and sat seemingly comfortable as the three-seed. The Horned Frogs finished strong with a 52-point win, albeit to Iowa State, but ultimately slipped three spots in the rankings and out of the playoff altogether. Florida State also won convincingly, cementing its perfect regular season, and helped the committee avoid answering a difficult question. Ohio State dominated in the Big Ten title and leaped the Frogs to gain the last playoff spot, highlighting the committee’s emphasis on winning a conference championship.
The playoff has been full of surprises, but the biggest surprise might be just around the corner. North Carolina has won 11 straight games and is undefeated in conference play, yet they are ranked just 10th. The Tar Heels certainly have their shortcomings: their loss is against four-win South Carolina, they have played multiple FCS schools, and their best win is against an eight-win team with an asterisk, Miami. That said, the committee has still put North Carolina within arm’s reach of the playoff.
They play in the conference title game Saturday, a luxury four other top 10 teams do not have. Even better for the Tar Heels resume, they face the number one team in the country. Even though they sit six spots out of the playoff with essentially one weekend left, the Heels can still make one last jump.
The playoff committee has laid out criteria it uses to help determine the rankings. The committee states that it distinguishes “comparable competition” by considering strength of schedule (SOS), head-to-head matchups and conference championships won, among other criteria. If the top 10 ranked teams, consisting of power five schools with similar records, are considered “comparable competition” then each criteria becomes important.
It is clear North Carolina’s strength of schedule has been lacking. But even with just five wins versus bowl eligible teams the committee still ranked North Carolina in the top 10. Now add the number one team in the country to their schedule and the Heels’ SOS might stand comparably next to any other playoff hopeful.
Time and time again the committee has discussed how important it is for teams to win their conference championship. If North Carolina earns that title they would finish the regular season 12-1 while sporting the ACC crown. That alone would move them past two-loss teams like Florida State and Notre Dame. Jumping Ohio State might be up for debate, but their only win versus a top-25 team this year was last week over No. 15 Michigan. Taking down number one and winning the conference would probably be good enough for the Heels to jump the Buckeyes. Oklahoma is the only other top-10 team not playing this week, but ranked third with wins over three ranked teams they appear to have clinched their spot.
So simply winning Saturday, North Carolina would move past three teams and up to No. 7 without even accounting for the other three conference championship games. Seems a little more reasonable, right? As for the other games, the Big Ten is about as straight forward as it gets. Win and they are in. It is a battle of No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State. A loss would give Iowa its first or would give Michigan State its second. A one-loss ACC champion would not have difficultly leaping the loser.
In the SEC title, No. 2 Alabama will take on No. 18 Florida. It is hard to imagine a team that scored two points last week would beat Alabama, a team that over the last month has won by an average of 26 points a game. If some miracle happened, Florida would have too much ground to make up to make the top four and UNC would hop a two-loss Alabama. But assuming the far more likely outcome, Bama would lock itself into the playoff.
The only other conference title that matters is the Pac-12 Championship. This one the Heels truly need to happen. No. 7 Stanford is taking on No. 20 USC. The Trojans are playing the role of “spoiler.” USC has four losses and no chance of making the playoff, but Stanford has just two losses and a top ten win versus Notre Dame. A win Saturday would give them the edge over North Carolina, but ironically, the Cardinal would need the Heels’ help to open up a spot in the playoff by beating Clemson. If both Carolina and Stanford win, Stanford would likely get the nod based on both a tougher non-conference schedule (No. 14 Northwestern and No. 8 Notre Dame) and having more quality wins.
But if USC wins, North Carolina would jump Stanford and based on this scenario the list of playoff suiters would become Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, the Big Ten champ and North Carolina. Five teams, four spots. The question would become, could No. 10 North Carolina jump No. 1 Clemson if they beat them? Well, they would both be one-loss teams and remember the committee distinguishes “comparable opponents” with head-to-head meetings. Obviously, that would give the Heels the edge and would move them over Clemson and into the fourth and final playoff spot.
It is a jump that would unquestionably be the most shocking move the playoff committee has made in its brief history. The 2014 TCU controversy would suddenly become an afterthought. The Heels really only need two things to happen, and lucky for them they control one of them.