Last season, North Carolina finished as the highest ranked team not to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Thanks to bowl tie ins, UNC got jumped over by Ole Miss, Oklahoma State, and the highest ranked Group of Five team, Houston.
In 2016, there’s a chance UNC could rack up wins and get themselves back in that conversation again. If Carolina can replicate a similar season, they might be better positioned this year.
This season, the Orange Bowl is not one of the College Football Playoff semifinals, meaning the ACC is guaranteed a spot in that game. Should an ACC team make the playoff, that spot will open up for the second ranked team from the conference. If the Orange Bowl hadn’t been a semifinal last year, UNC still wouldn’t have made it into the New Year’s Six due to Florida State being ranked over them. However, it does open a door for the Tar Heels.
If 2016 plays out similarly to 2015, UNC’s improved schedule along with another 11-2 record might put them in a position for that Orange Bowl spot. (As much as we would like it to happen, I’m not realistically considering a playoff spot for Carolina. I would accept being proven wrong, however.)
The main knocks against UNC in 2015 were two games against FCS teams, and a loss to a bad South Carolina team. An 11-2 record with a ACC Championship Game loss in 2016 means a win over at least one of Georgia or Florida State. If that were to happen, that would give UNC a marquee win they didn’t have last season.
While North Carolina again has two FCS teams on the schedule, the rest of it should be improved. That makes another season like last year more unlikely, but it also makes this team’s résumé more impressive if they do win ten or more games again.
The easiest way for UNC to make a New Year’s Six game would be to win 10 or more games, win the Coastal Division, beat Florida State, and have Clemson beat FSU as well. That would likely put Carolina in position to be the second ACC team, and provided Clemson makes the playoffs, as they have the talent to do, UNC would play in the Orange Bowl.
In reality, they need to probably finish with a better ranking than either FSU or Clemson. It seems decently likely that one of those teams will make the playoff. That probably requires some help from other teams along the way. All of that is much easier said than done, but it’s all within the realms of possibility.
In some ways, it would be easier for North Carolina to make the New Year’s Six this season. In other ways, it will be much harder. It’s probably unlikely, but if they can pull it off, it would be a nice thing to have on Carolina football’s résumé.