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UNC ranked higher in football than basketball: How often has it happened?

North Carolina coach Roy Williams talks with his players during game against Wofford on Nov. 18. For the first time since the 1996 football season, the UNC football team is ranked higher than the UNC men’s basketball team.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams talks with his players during game against Wofford on Nov. 18. For the first time since the 1996 football season, the UNC football team is ranked higher than the UNC men’s basketball team. rwillett@newsobserver.com

It’s not unprecedented and we’ve seen it more often than, say, Halley’s Comet, but it’s rare, nonetheless, for a North Carolina football team to be more highly ranked than a UNC basketball team in the Associated Press top 25 poll.

Yet that’s the case this week. The UNC football team, riding an 11-game winning streak, is No. 8 in the latest AP top 25 that came out on Sunday. And the basketball team, which began the season at No. 1, is ranked ninth in the latest AP top 25 poll that came Monday.

This kind of thing has happened before but not often. And not in nearly 20 years.

First, though, some background and some perspective. The AP football poll has existed since 1936. The basketball poll didn’t begin until the 1948-49 season. And when you’re comparing one school’s basketball and football rankings, you’re really limited to two months of polls: those that come in November and December, and then the final football poll that now comes out in January.

For a long time, though, the polls didn’t overlap. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1960s that the final football polls of the season began overlapping with the first basketball polls of the season. (In a related note: college sports beat writers likely had much saner Novembers back then.)

So for the sake of this exercise, we’ll only include years when the football polls and basketball polls overlapped. Let’s say from 1965 forward (which is a good year for our purposes given that neither UNC football nor UNC basketball was ranked in November and December of 1965).

Limiting the comparison to 1965 and on eliminates some good years for UNC football – years when it was more highly-regarded than UNC basketball. During the 1949 football season, for instance, UNC’s football team was ranked for six weeks, as high as No. 6, while the basketball team wasn’t ranked at all during the 1949-50 season. In 1950, UNC football was ranked as high as No. 11, while basketball in the same season, again, wasn’t ranked.

And even before then, UNC football had some strong years. The Tar Heels were ranked No. 1 in football on Oct. 11, 1948, but, again, there’s no basketball poll that early that offers a sake of comparison. The first AP basketball poll debuted on Jan. 18, 1949.

But back to the point: the number of times UNC’s football team has been more highly ranked than the basketball team. It happened this week. And five other weeks in history.

They are:

▪ Jan. 4, 1981: football was 10th in the final poll of the 1980 season, while basketball was No. 16.

▪ Nov. 11, 1996: football was No. 6, while basketball was No. 8 in the preseason poll

▪ Nov. 25, 1996: football was No. 13, while basketball was No. 14

▪ Dec. 2, 1996: football was No. 13, while basketball was No. 14

▪ Jan. 3, 1997: football was No. 10, while basketball was No. 13

And then there’s now: the first time in about 19 years that UNC’s football team is ranked higher than its basketball team.

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