Just over a month into the 2016 college football season, a few parallels can be drawn between this year’s North Carolina team and the 2015 edition.
Both teams opened their respective campaigns with losses to SEC programs (South Carolina in 2015, Georgia this year) on national television. Both bounced back to boast 4-1 records through their first five games. Both featured prolific offenses led by playmaking quarterbacks.
But there’s one significant factor working in the favor of this year’s UNC squad that wasn’t present this time last fall: The Tar Heels are on the national radar.
After knocking off then-No. 12 Florida State in Tallahassee last weekend, Larry Fedora’s team holds the No. 17 spot in the latest AP Top 25 poll. Going into a Week 6 matchup against Virginia Tech, North Carolina is garnering respect and setting itself up well for when the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its first rankings on Nov. 1.
It’s a different story relative to a year ago.
Carolina was 7-1 last autumn when the committee revealed its first rankings. Despite sitting at No. 21 in the AP poll, the Heels didn’t make that list.
In the weeks that followed, the team continued to win, eventually claiming its first ACC Coastal Division title in program history and finishing 11-1. UNC climbed as high as No. 10 in the CFP rankings, but even going into the league championship game against Clemson, a playoff appearance would have been a long shot even with a victory over the Tigers.
The Tar Heels lost that game, making it a moot point in the end, but as Fedora’s group dominated its competition toward the end of the year, there were a few different explanations for why the team wasn’t ranked higher.
The season-opening loss to a weak Gamecocks club was an ugly stain. The presence of two FCS opponents (North Carolina A&T and Delaware) on the slate created concerns regarding strength of schedule. There was also a lack of quality wins; UNC’s most impressive performances included a 26-19 victory at eight-win Pitt and the 59-21 demolishing of an eight-win Miami squad.
If North Carolina keeps winning, it won’t have nearly as much holding it back this season.
Yes, it will inevitably come up that the Tar Heels once again have two FCS foes (James Madison and The Citadel) on the docket, but losing to Georgia in Atlanta to open the year won’t look anywhere near as ugly as the loss to South Carolina in 2015. In addition, last weekend’s triumph in Tallahassee represents a bigger win than anything UNC could point to 10 months ago.
There will also be opportunities for the Heels to help themselves moving forward. Defeating the No. 25 Hokies this weekend would help their case, and a road victory against a top-10 Miami team the following week would be even bigger.
If UNC passes those tests and keeps rolling toward another 11-1 finish, it will move up the rankings as others fall. Right now there are 11 teams ranked ahead of North Carolina that are undefeated. Some of those will lose by late November, with matchups between Alabama and Texas A&M, Ohio State and Michigan, as well as others.
For now, the Tar Heels can only control whether or not they remain perfect from here on out. If they do that, they’ll be much more pleased when the first College Football Playoff rankings of the year are released.