With four weeks to go in the football schedule, both North Carolina and N.C. State still have reasonable and legitimate chances to stake a claim on a “successful” season, a bar set as low as 6-6 and that might well include more losses than wins against FBS teams.
Such is the world of major college football, where teams are often rewarded for a losing record against their peers with a postseason game, given a passing grade for failing on the field. Even the truest devotees of the Wolfpack or Tar Heels would have a hard time planting a flag on their seasons as “good.”
Entertaining and promising at times would be a fair description of N.C. State, which has also been heartbreakingly frustrating and disappointing at others – although not nearly as much so as North Carolina, which entered the season promising entertainment only to suffer a near-complete implosion on defense that sabotaged any chance the Tar Heels had of moving forward.
Still, neither team is going to turn down a bowl berth if it lands in its lap, except perhaps the Tar Heels if the Independence Bowl comes calling, since North Carolina has all but taken a blood oath never to return to Shreveport, La., after the 2011 debacle there.
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N.C. State can clinch bowl-eligibility with one more win, most easily at home against Wake Forest on Nov. 15 if not Saturday against Georgia Tech. At 4-5, North Carolina has more work to do after taking this week off, needing two of three from Pittsburgh, Duke and N.C. State. What a scene it would be if the Tar Heels hosted the Wolfpack on Nov. 29 with postseason eligibility at stake.
They both stand to benefit from the rising tide of rewarded mediocrity, which traces its roots to two not entirely separate developments: the move to 12-game schedules and ESPN’s voracious appetite for football inventory. The ACC has 16 teams in its bowl pool, including Notre Dame … and 10 bowl tie-ins, plus a potential spot in the College Football Playoff.
In the days of 11-game schedules, it took a 6-5 record to become bowl eligible. Not impressive perhaps, but at least on the right side of the .500 line. The switch to 12 games in 2002 created a raft of bowl-eligible 6-6 teams, even if for a while there weren’t enough bowl games to accommodate them.
Enter ESPN, which filled the void with the Boca Raton Bowl and what is sadly no longer called the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl, among 11 new bowls that have joined the fray since 2008 to accommodate the teeming hordes of mediocrity.
Georgia Tech even went to a bowl with a losing record in 2012, because North Carolina and Miami were on probation, and the 6-6 Yellow Jackets represented the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship Game … and lost.
Raising the bar to 7-5 was considered in 2012, and rejected because too many people benefit from bowl inflation.
Bowls for 6-6 teams are essentially a job-security program for coaches, who also get all those extra bowl practices to work with their team. Fans get an excuse to travel to a bowl, even if that happens to be Birmingham or Boise. Players get gift bags, conferences get to tout how many of their teams ended up in the postseason, and ESPN fills the schedule during what is otherwise a relatively slack time for programming.
All of which is a long way of saying, this part of the system isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, which this season might benefit N.C. State and North Carolina. It doesn’t matter whether they deserve to go to a bowl game. There’s a pretty good shot one or both will end up going regardless.