North Carolina climbed from 23rd to 17th in the College Football Playoff poll on Tuesday night, and as we’ve come to expect each week, the committee’s comical explanation of the rankings clouds the reality that they pretty much have teams slotted appropriately. We projected the Tar Heels at 17th through a simple counting exercise of teams who should have dropped this week to allow UNC to move up. That’s going to be the only movement the Heels will see in a polls until a potential opportunity to beat #1 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, and even then, UNC will climb no higher than the 5th spot, with the 7th spot being more of a realistic ceiling.
To understand the rankings, it’s important to understand what they determine. Teams ranked 1st through 4th will play in the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl as the national semifinals. The Fiesta Bowl, Peach Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl will host a combination of conference champions (or their replacements, if a conference champion makes the playoff), the highest ranked Group of 5 team, and three at-large teams pulled from the top of the polls. With the Orange Bowl being a playoff site this year, the ACC will not have a guaranteed spot for their next highest ranked team should the Champion make the playoff.
But here’s the catch … the bowls are very much involved in the rankings process. The playoff itself is a competition between the four most deserving teams while the rest of the poll turns into “okay, who do you want playing in your bowl?” If you’re looking for a justification of two-loss Florida State to be ranked ahead of North Carolina, that’s it. The committee will go into a convoluted lossplanation of the Georgia Tech game as a fluke for the Noles because of that crazy play, but when the doors are closed, Florida State is simply a more attractive bowl guest than North Carolina, and so are Baylor, Stanford, Michigan, Utah and LSU, for that matter. And that’s the end of that discussion, unfortunately.
There are only three outcomes for UNC at this point, and all are pretty cut and dried:
Peach Bowl, if they win the ACC. Russell Athletic Bowl, if they don’t win the ACC. A Pool 1 Bowl (probably Belk) if they end the year 0-2 or 1-3 and FSU loses to Florida.
Duke is in a group of five teams fighting for three spots. To get to a Pool 1 Bowl, which would either be a spot in the Pinstripe Bowl or the Belk Bowl, the Blue Devils need to edge out two of Louisville, NC State, Miami, or Virginia Tech. Wins against Virginia and Wake Forest would likely get that done as the other four schools have much more difficult challenges over the final two weeks. Of course, Duke is facing its own internal challenges right now with an injured quarterback, a starting wide receiver kicked off of the team, and a three-game losing streak where the Devils haven’t shown much spark. A loss to Virginia on Saturday would likely wrap up a trip to Shreveport against an SEC team, or to Annapolis to play a team from the American Athletic Conference.
It certainly feels like the Wolfpack controls their own destiny as well. They’ll be a heavy underdog in the North Carolina game, but a matchup against Syracuse seems a lot easier than Louisville and Miami both having two losable games remaining on the schedule. NC State has similar challenges … a dismissed starter, a thin corps of wide receivers, and some personal demons from letting a few teams off of the hook when they had chances to win. Still, an 8-4 NC State team is not getting left out of a Pool 1 bowl, but just to be safe, maybe hope against the potential of a 7-4 Hokies team jumping into the picture. Both Duke and NC State have to find some obvious separation from Miami and Louisville because both would lose a prestige battle in a pool where bowls get to select who they want. NC State holds that tie-breaker over this year’s Duke team, but would hands down fall well behind Virginia Tech in Frank Beamer’s final year.
UNC – Russell Athletic Bowl
Duke – Pinstripe Bowl
NC State – Military Bowl