What could have been: South Carolina loss looms large for UNC

Larry Fedora said he isn’t haunted by it, that he doesn’t think about it – that dreadful 17-13 season-opening loss against South Carolina that seems so long ago now.

“No, I don’t,” Fedora, the North Carolina coach, said earlier this week when asked if memories of that defeat surface when he’s alone, in quiet moments. “When I’m by myself, when I’m with my wife, when I’m with you … no, I don’t (think about it).”

Given what has transpired since, though, and where the Tar Heels now find themselves – on the cusp of clinching the ACC’s Coastal Division but on the outside looking in at the College Football Playoff – that loss is impossible not to think about. Even if Fedora says he doesn’t.

Because where would UNC be without it? Where would the Tar Heels, who have won nine consecutive games since that loss, be ranked in the College Football Playoff Rankings if not for what happened against South Carolina at the start of the season?

The latest College Football Playoff rankings came out Tuesday night. The good news for UNC: It made the largest jump of any team in the rankings, up six spots from where it was a week ago. The bad news: The Tar Heels are still only 17th and are the second-lowest “Power 5” conference team with a 9-1 record in the rankings.

And all because, presumably, UNC opened the season with a loss in a game it should have won. What if Marquise Williams hadn’t thrown three interceptions – two of them in the end zone – against the Gamecocks? What if before one of those interceptions Fedora and his coaching staff had just given the ball to Elijah Hood on the Tar Heels’ last possession when they were so close to the goal line?

What if?

Had UNC defeated South Carolina, the Tar Heels unquestionably would be among the top 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Even if they were the lowest-ranked undefeated team from a Power 5 conference, they’d still be no lower than No. 7, behind Clemson, Ohio State, Iowa and Oklahoma State.

And who knows, with the way UNC has been beating teams lately – 66-31 against Duke and 59-21 against Miami – there’s a good chance the Tar Heels would be higher than No. 7. But that’s not the reality. The reality is that UNC is 17th, held back by an ugly loss against a bad team (South Carolina is 3-7) and a non-conference schedule that includes two FCS opponents.

The Tar Heels played non-conference games against two teams – South Carolina and Illinois – from Power 5 conferences but their other non-conference games were against N.C. A&T and Delaware, two teams that do nothing to enhance UNC’s playoff profile. In fact, playing against two FCS teams hurts UNC’s playoff ranking.

The reasoning behind it isn’t exactly sound. Replace Delaware with, say, Louisiana-Monroe, or Idaho, or UCF, or Wyoming, or any number of bad FBS teams and the result would have been exactly the same: a lopsided, dominant UNC victory. Yet because the Tar Heels played against two FCS teams, their schedule is criticized in a way it wouldn’t be if they played one FCS team and a weak FBS opponent from non-Power 5 conference.

Yet despite it all – despite the criticism over the schedule and despite the South Carolina loss and despite being 17th in the latest playoff rankings – UNC still has a shot. A small shot. But a shot, nonetheless, of making the College Football Playoff.

Here’s what needs to happen:

The Tar Heels have to win out.

That one is obvious enough. And the more convincing the victories, the better.

UNC must leave no doubt in victories the next two weeks against Virginia Tech and N.C. State, and then it must beat Clemson in the ACC Championship game. Style points are less important against Clemson, but they’re still important. What’s more impressive: a 12-1 UNC with a you-can-say-it-was-a-fluke close win against Clemson or a 12-1 UNC with a two-touchdown win against Clemson?

A favorable set of circumstances needs to emerge.

Which means, most likely, limited chaos toward the top of the rankings and mass chaos among the next tier. UNC, and its fans, might be bothered that five two-loss teams are ahead of the Tar Heels in the rankings. That, though, is irrelevant – because if UNC keeps winning, and beats Clemson, it will jump over those two-loss teams in time.

UNC needs to be more concerned with some of the one-loss teams ahead of it. And with the possibility that some undefeated teams become one-loss teams, making the field more muddled at the top.

The best-case scenario for UNC probably looks something like this: Alabama wins the SEC. Ohio State wins the Big Ten. If that happens, it all but eliminates all other teams from those conferences.

Meanwhile, continuing UNC’s best-case, No. 4 Notre Dame needs to lose against Stanford next weekend and things probably need to get weird in the Big 12. Really weird. Sure, Oklahoma State could finish undefeated and secure a spot in the playoff, and that scenario might not be all bad for UNC, but the Tar Heels would be better off if all the Big 12 teams beat each other.

UNC needs, for instance, No. 7 Oklahoma to lose against No. 18 TCU this weekend, making the Sooners a two-loss team. Then No. 6. Oklahoma State needs to lose against No. 10 Baylor, giving the Cowboys their first loss.

And then, next weekend, two-loss Oklahoma needs to beat one-loss Oklahoma State, giving Oklahoma State a second loss. That same weekend, Baylor needs to beat TCU, giving the Horned Frogs their second loss. And then, on Dec. 5, Texas needs to beat Baylor, giving the Bears a second loss.

Improbable? Sure. But not completely out of the realm. The most unlikely of all of those outcomes looks like a Texas victory against Baylor but, remember, Texas beat Oklahoma earlier this season (speaking of bad losses).

And if it works out that way, if Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU all wind up with two losses – hey, it can happen – then would a two-loss Big 12 team rank higher than a UNC team on a 12-game winning streak that includes a victory against No. 1 Clemson? Probably not.

And if all that happens, if the top Big 12 teams cannibalize each other into having two losses apiece, and if Notre Dame loses against Stanford, giving the Fighting Irish a second loss, and if the favorites win in the Big Ten and SEC, eliminating the chances of other hopefuls, and if UNC closes the season on a 12-game winning streak that includes a victory against the No. 1 team in the country …

… If all that happens – you have to like UNC’s chances of making the playoff. Right?

Chances are, though, that it doesn’t happen that way. That the Big 12 champion isn’t a two-loss team. That Notre Dame does beat Stanford. That UNC ends the season in the ACC championship game not with a victory against Clemson but with an expected defeat.

If the Tar Heels win their next two games, though, and then find a way to beat Clemson, then UNC’s only loss of the season will only become that much more difficult. It’s a game UNC could have won, should have won, that is coming back to haunt the Tar Heels in ways that couldn’t have been imagined two and a half months ago.

UNC at Virginia Tech

When: noon Saturday

Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Va.