The University of North Carolina Tar Heels must be hating themselves for losing to the University of South Carolina in the first week of the season. That loss would be one of two things stopping them from making the College Football Playoffs if they were to win against the University of Clemson this Saturday night in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game. The other is the fact that the current playoff structure simply allows too few teams to take part.
To be sure, even if the Tar Heels do beat the Tigers, they most likely would not leapfrog other teams for a place in the final four. The committee that chooses who makes the playoffs and who does not would probably rather have the University of Ohio State Buckeyes be one of those four. Or the University of Stanford. Or a few other teams. North Carolina has been fighting for respect all season long after losing to a not-very-good Gamecocks team.
Of course, when North Carolina was beaten by South Carolina the college football world had no idea that 1) the University of Iowa would go undefeated, 2) the University of Georgia would fire their mostly successful head coach, Mark Richt, 3) the American Athletic Conference would have three teams ranked in the Top-25 at the end of the year, or many other items. In other words, the Tar Heels have been on an uphill climb for respect from a time when very few items were actually known about the season.
There was a time when voters were assumed to vote for teams in the Top-25 in the order of their record plus how they were currently playing. The Tar Heels have just one loss but are playing like a top-four team. Still, the Associated Press and the Coaches Poll voters are not the ones who choose the College Football Playoffs, but maybe they should be more like them. Carolina is ranked inside the top-ten in both polls, but outside it in the playoff rankings. If Carolina was ranked higher in the playoff poll and they managed to defeat Clemson, they would have a shot at the playoffs. As it currently stands, the Tar Heels have very little chance of making the playoffs.
Even in the traditional polls Carolina was not well-respected for most of the season. The Tar Heels did not move into the Top-25 of either poll until after they dismantled a decent University of Duke team 66-31 in the Tar Heels ninth game of the year. They have continued to make their way into the top-ten because of wins over the University of Miami (59-21), Virginia Tech – a team that was playing for their long-standing coach in his final home game (30-27 in overtime) and North Carolina State University (45-34).
Carolina is a good team. They are also capable of defeating number one Clemson. Head coach Larry Fedora allows flexibility in his offense and has skill position players that are able to carry out the game plan. The offensive line is seasoned and talented. This most likely is the best line Clemson will have faced this year. Running back Elijah Hood averages 6.7 yards-per-carry and has 1,280 yards rushing this year along with 16 touchdowns. Quarterback Marquise Williams throws deep with accuracy and can run extremely well. In the game against Duke, Williams had over 400 yards passing at the half. He had touchdown passes of 89, 74 and 49 yards; all on post throws. The problems with Williams come with his accuracy on short and middle throws. If he is in rhythm, the Tar Heels are difficult to defend.
Defensively, Carolina was awful last season. First-year coordinator Gene Chizik has been a successful coach elsewhere, both as a coordinator and head coach. Chizik has turned last year’s bad defense into a good, but not great, one. The defense’s job is to get enough stops for the offense to control the game. If the Tar Heels can keep Clemson to 21 or fewer points on Saturday, North Carolina will win.
Saturday’s matchup is one of strength versus strength. Clemson defensively ranks third nationally in tackles for loss. North Carolina ranks sixth nationally in preventing tackles for loss (4.25 per game). Clemson ranks first in the country in third down defense. However, eight of the eleven rushes of 25 yards or more it has given up this season have come in the last month. The Tar Heels rank second in the ACC in rushing.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson will be at least in the top-three of Heisman Trophy voting this season. He is a skilled passer. He has proven in his two years as a starter that he can lead the Tigers to victory. Carolina, though, has given up the fourth-fewest yards to opposing wide receivers among Power 5 teams in 2015. It would not be surprising to see Clemson attempt the throw underneath to pick up yards.
Just think of how great the ACC championship would be if both North Carolina and Clemson had finished 12-0. This is already the first time two conference unbeatens have met in the ACC championship game. But the Tar Heels did lose that first game of the season to a poor (as it turned out) South Carolina team. Does everything that has happened since then not matter? Does the quality of the Tar Heels play as the season has progressed, win after win, not matter? It certainly appears to be that way as far as the College Football Playoffs are concerned, and this is another reason why the playoffs should be expanded beyond the current four-team structure.