The preseason college football AP Poll was released this week, and North Carolina will not only begin the season in it, but they are decently high up in in at #18. Considering that the preseason poll includes Big Ten and Pac-12 teams who won’t be playing this season, they are actually #12 among teams that are planning to take the field.
This will be the first time since 2016 that UNC will enter a season ranked. It’s just the sixth time they’ve done so since the end of Mack Brown’s first stint in Chapel Hill. While they’ve been ranked to start a season plenty of times, it’s not a year after year thing. There’s been several stretches where they’ve gone seasons without getting into the top 25 at all.
Now that we know the 2020 Tar Heel team will have that status, let’s see how they’ve done in the past when they’ve gone into the year ranked.
This will be the 19th time a UNC team has gone into the season ranked. The first time ever was 1950, 13 years after they got ranked for the first time during a season. The highest was #5 in 1982, but in most cases they’ve been in the lower half of the rankings. (Their average is about 16.)
Of those 18 seasons, UNC ended the season still ranked in just five of them. Their average record in those years is 7-4. In general, that record tracks with how they’ve done in these years, they’ve pretty good but not exactly great or living up to their ranking. Only four times has a UNC team finished a season ranked higher than they were in the preseason. In better news, they’ve only finished with a losing record in four of them, and one of those was because they went .500 in the regular season and lost a bowl game.
As mentioned, if we take the teams who aren’t playing, UNC are a top 15 team. The Tar Heels only have eight seasons in history where they’ve come in to year in the top 15.
In those such season, they’ve also on average gone about 7-4. In half of them, they’ve finished the season outside the top 25, nevermind the top 15. However, those season have also resulted in three of UNC’s top 10 finishes, including Brown’s final 1997, which is arguably the best year in school history. None of the aforementioned losing seasons came in years where they started in the top 15, and they at the very least made a bowl game in all but two of them.
Obviously, the roster and coaching staff is different so these old years don’t have any bearing on what may happen in 2020. However, it’s worth going back and seeing what the program has historically done in these situations. And who knows, seemingly everyone is high on the team, maybe they can help turn some of those numbers in a positive direction if or when they get on the field this season.
All historical data courtesy of Sports Reference