Even though North Carolina didn’t win the ACC, the Tar Heels, like Duke and N.C. State still have plenty left on the table, collectively speaking.
It will only take one win to set a new record for combined wins by the Triangle’s three ACC teams. Absent a team in the national semifinals, which still may not have happened if North Carolina had beaten Clemson on Saturday night, that’s going to be the big December football drama.
The big December drama didn’t turn out to be the bowl selections on Sunday, for a change. A year after N.C. State was shuffled down the pecking order, the Triangle teams landed softly in the ACC’s convoluted bowl process.
While the College Football Playoff committee kept Florida State ahead of North Carolina in the final rankings – which put the Seminoles into the Peach Bowl instead of the Tar Heels, the top-ranked team left out of the CFP’s New Year’s 6 bowls – Duke and N.C. State both remained in the ACC’s top tier when there was a realistic chance either or both could slip out entirely.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The irony is that by facing better opponents in better bowls, it’ll be tougher to get that record 26th win.
With all the usual disclaimers about this particular moment in football history – 12-game schedules, weak nonconference opponents, the explosion in bowl games and eligibility of 6-6 teams, etc. – there’s something to be celebrated here. Even though North Carolina couldn’t secure the Triangle’s first ACC title since 1989 on Saturday, it was already a historically productive year for the three teams.
While there are certainly warts on all three records – North Carolina’s season-opening loss to South Carolina, N.C. State’s 0-5 record against bowl-eligible opponents, Duke’s late-season fade after the Miami debacle – this is still a rare moment where all three teams are legitimately competitive.
The 25 combined wins tied the all-time record, set in 1994, with three games still to be played. All three went to bowl games for the second year in a row and third time ever. And with good bowl performances from N.C. State and Duke, all three teams could win eight games, something that only happened in that (retrospectively) glorious 1994 season.
That won’t be easy. Mississippi State will be a difficult SEC opponent for N.C. State in Charlotte’s Belk Bowl and Indiana, Duke’s opponent in New York’s Pinstripe Bowl, played some of the Big Ten’s best teams tough this season, even if the Hoosiers were unable to close the deal.
And North Carolina, having come so close to winning the ACC title and falling out of the New Year’s 6, will be in a sort of motivational dead zone against Baylor in Orlando’s Russell Athletic Bowl, although that presumes the Bears can get at least one quarterback somewhat healthy in the next month.
No matter what happens, the schools combined to win 20 or more games for the fourth straight season, only the second time that’s happened. North Carolina can set a school record with a 12th win, Duke has a chance to win at least eight games three seasons in a row for the first time in school history and N.C. State can match last season’s win total.
Even without an ACC title, even without a national title up for grabs, there’s still a lot on the line for the Triangle’s teams.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock
Triple the wins
Since the first season of ACC football in 1953, Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State have combined for 20 or more wins 15 times, including each of the past four seasons. Six times, the three schools have won 22 or more games:
2015: 25 North Carolina 11-2, Duke 7-5, N.C. State 7-5
1994: 25 N.C. State 9-3, North Carolina 8-4, Duke 8-4
1972: 24 North Carolina 11-1*, N.C. State 8-3, Duke 5-6
2014: 23 Duke 9-4, N.C. State 8-5, North Carolina 6-7
1963: 22 North Carolina 9-2*, N.C. State 8-3*, Duke 5-4-1
1974: 22 N.C. State 9-2-1, North Carolina 7-5, Duke 6-5
* won or shared ACC championship