North Carolina returned to the land of the ranked this week, landing at #21 in both the media and coaches polls. But when the initial College Football Playoff rankings, also known as The Only Poll That Matters(TM), was released Tuesday night, the Tar Heels were nowhere to be found.
Clemson leads the first CFP weekly poll, followed by fellow unbeatens LSU and Ohio State. Then one-loss Alabama and Notre Dame appear ahead of unbeaten Baylor, Michigan State, TCU, and Iowa. Just like Donald Trump, it appears name recognition and celebrity are still worth a lot when it comes to polls.
The only other ACC team to make the rankings is Florida State at #16, which is not surprising given that the Seminoles are the only other team besides the Tigers and Tar Heels to be ranked in the media and coaches polls.
The playoff rankings aren't really worth the bandwidth used to kvetch about them at this point. Only one of the top four teams in last year's initial rankings actually made the playoff, and eventual national champion Ohio State had one loss and was ranked #16 this time last November (so see, Florida State, we're saying there's a chance). And aside from the usual griping about SEC bias (see Alabama) plus the committee cherry-picking whatever criteria they want to use to justify their selections, it is pretty much as expected at this point. At the end of the day there are some absolutely huge matchups coming in November that will shake out the rankings, starting with FSU at Clemson and LSU at Alabama this weekend.
There was a little surprise at Carolina's absence since, like the media and coaches polls the previous two weeks, UNC is the only one-loss Power 5 team that is not in the CFP Top 25. The general consensus is that UNC's opening week loss to SCAR has crushed the Heels in the eyes of the national voters. UNC outplayed the Gamecocks for pretty much the entire game and had three red zone turnovers, including two in the end zone, and lost by four points. Since then, SCAR's season has gone off the cliff and their coach quit on them, while UNC has won seven straight, has one of the nation's best offenses, and is playing top-30 defense.
Still, that opening loss, which did not appear to be so horrible at the time, hangs like an albatross around UNC's neck (which is funny because the SEC is supposed to be so strong, except when they're not). There are still four media members who still did not rank Carolina in the top 25, even after their road win at then-ranked Pitt. And as friend of the blog @jamesleegilbert pointed out, writer Dave Reardon of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser doesn't even think UNC is the best team in North Carolina, as he ranked Appalachian State in his top 25 ahead of UNC, and was the only AP voter out of 61 to cast a vote for the Mountaineers.
Another sticking point comes when you start comparing the resumes of teams in the poll versus what UNC has done so far this season. The Tar Heels body of work is similar to various other teams, most notably #15 Oklahoma.
UNC and Oklahoma both 7-1, both have a bad loss to a 3-5 team, with roughly equal good wins. One is ranked 15th, one isn’t ranked.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) November 4, 2015
UNC vs Okla: SC = Texas NCAT Tenn GT > Tx Tech WF = Tulsa UVA = KSU Ill — David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) November 4, 2015
The immediate reaction to this is, "UNC couldn't beat Oklahoma." That might be true but is also misses the point. The issue is two 7-1 teams with similar resumes but one is ranked #15 the the other not at all. It goes to show that the reputation of the program still carries weight in the committee's deliberations even if they claim otherwise(see Alabama being #4.) It also illustrates the level to which UNC is penalized for the South Carolina loss, which was the first week of the season as opposed to Oklahoma, which lost four weeks ago, or even Ohio State, which lost the first week last year and rebounded to make the playoffs.
It is also largely irrelevant at this stage of the season. No one expected UNC to contend for the playoff and even at 8-0 would likely be outside the top 10 like Oklahoma State is. The larger issue is Carolina has four winnable games on the schedule and should the Tar Heels play up to full potential in those games, the ranking business will resolve itself in due course. Besides, UNC's immediate goals are winning the Coastal Division and getting a shot at CFP #1 Clemson in the ACC Championship. Regardless of the CFP standings, UNC has a legitimate shot at a special kind of season by program standards. In the end winning the division, 10+ games and a nice bowl bid would be a wildly successful season after nearly 20 years in the desert.