Hypothetically Speaking: UNC vs. Stanford

The Tar Heels moved up to No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. 

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The prognostications surrounding the various College Football Playoff scenarios are quite possibly the best part, at least until the actual games begin on New Year’s Eve.

In an attempt to determine UNC’s primary competition for a playoff spot, we will make three projections for this discussion: (1) UNC upsets No. 1 Clemson in the ACC Championship Game; (2) No. 7 Stanford defeats No. 20 USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game; and (3) No. 2 Alabama tops No. 18 Florida in the SEC Championship Game.

In that scenario, Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma and the Big Ten champion would make up 3/4 of the playoff bracket. 

Tuesday’s rankings include two teams ahead of UNC that have no chance at winning their conference championship (No. 6 Ohio State & No. 9 Florida State), a third team that will lose in the Big Ten Championship Game (either No. 4 Iowa or No. 5 Michigan State) and a fourth team (No. 8 Notre Dame) that has two losses, including at Clemson. Given the playoff committee’s emphasis on winning conference championships, it’s possible, if not likely, that both Stanford and UNC leap that quartet of teams following Saturday’s games.

So how do the Tar Heels and Cardinal currently stack up?

Stanford UNC
Rank 7 10
Record 10-2 11-1
Wins over bowl-eligible teams 7 5
Wins over ranked teams 2 0
Losses to unranked teams 0 1
SOS 16 63
Power 5 opps (to date) 11 10
Avg. margin of victory vs P5 12.8 18.0
FCS opps 0 2

Stanford’s resume is the better of the two at this point in time. However, an upset of Clemson would not only give UNC the biggest win of the season, perhaps of any team, but also boost its strength of schedule significantly. Such a win would help address some of the committee's concerns.

“There’s no question that North Carolina has really improved and really had some impressive victories down the stretch here,” selection committee chair Jeff Long said on the selection show on Tuesday. “but their overall strength of schedule is important, and they do have a loss to a team in the SEC that’s near the bottom of the SEC. So the factors of playing FCS’s [and] having a bad loss against a team that’s not considered very high out of the SEC is holding them back, certainly. But they are a 10-win team and they do have just one loss.”

That perspective is applicable prior to Saturday's ACC title game, not necessarily after. 

“If we can finish and play very well [against Clemson], we’ll be in the conversation,” UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham told ESPN.com this week. “We’re in the conversation. That’s with a loss to a team with a losing record and two FCS schools. That is the reality of our schedule. It’s the reality of our season to date, so until you play all 13, the rankings are somewhat meaningless.”

That’s a valid point, especially considering Long’s repeated claims that the committee re-ranks the teams each week without consideration for the previous week’s poll.

Twice this week UNC head coach Larry Fedora has lobbied for his team’s inclusion in the playoff, provided it wins at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday.

“If we beat the No. 1 team in the country, which Clemson is the No. 1 team in the country, and it's a consensus No. 1, and they've been No. 1 for a long time, I believe that if that happens, our team is deserving, yes,” Fedora said.

If we alter the projections to pair a UNC win with a Stanford loss, the Tar Heels' likelihood of crashing the New Year's Eve playoff party increases significantly.

For a breakdown of UNC’s bowl possibilities, click here.

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