In two of the previous three seasons, Carolina didn’t hit the magic six win plateau to qualify for a bowl game until the end of the season. It created a ton of pressure on the squad as time ticked down, and ultimately limited their opportunities as their record locked them out of options. In the odd year of 2020, they didn’t qualify until November 14th.
The last time the Tar Heels qualified this early for a bowl, at least by date? 1997.
You read that right, even in their last great year of 2015, they didn’t get the magic sixth win until an October 24th win against Virginia. Now, this was helped by the fact that their off week was scheduled for the week prior, but this is still shows just how remarkable an accomplishment this is for the Tar Heels. It has been 25 years since, by date, the Tar Heels have qualified for a bowl this early.
All of this is to say, you’d be excused if you didn’t exactly have the ACC bowl picture at the top of your mind right now. But hey, now that I’ve put the thought in your head, you might be wondering where exactly can the Tar Heels go in late December?
Fear not, dear reader, we got you. Below, you will find the ACC bowl tie-ins for the upcoming season. Thanks to the rotation of the CFP bowls during the New Year’s Six, this picture is a little different than last year. Let’s dive in.
All the info is from the ACC site, and a little context will be provided.
College Football Playoff/New Year’s Six:
Peach Bowl-2022 CFP Semifinal 1, 12/31
Fiesta Bowl-2022 CFP Semifinal 2, 12/31
Orange Bowl-ACC affiliated, 12/30, 8 PM
Look, Carolina’s chances of making the CFP are so close to zero, if you rounded down it would be zero. BUT...it’s not yet zero, so we have to at least acknowledge that if the Tar Heels win out, win the ACC Championship, and some catastrophic things happen, the CFP may look at a schedule that included two strong road wins at the start of the season and wins over Wake and Clemson as worthy of inclusion.
That said, I think we all know this isn’t going to happen.
Instead, like 2020, the Orange Bowl is really the highest level that is realistic for the Tar Heels. They would end up there in two ways: an upset over Clemson in the ACC title game and not being strong enough to make the CFP, or being the highest rated non-playoff team from the ACC. This isn’t necessarily going to be as “easy” as it was in 2020, where Carolina just had to be better than everyone else but Clemson and Notre Dame. The Atlantic division is seen as the much stronger division, and even winning enough to make the ACC championship may not be enough to leap them over the likes of Syracuse and Wake Forest without another signature win. Namely, a win over Wake in Winston would likely make it tough for the CFP to rank the Tar Heels above Wake if the Tar Heels make the title game.
This is a realistic goal for Carolina at this point, but any stumble along the way probably knocks them from here.
Tier 1 Bowls
ReliaQuest Bowl-1/2, Noon, if the Orange Bowl has a Big Ten Opponent
Cheez-It Bowl-12/29, 5:30 PM
Holiday Bowl-12/28, 8 PM
Gator Bowl-12/30, 3:30 PM
Duke’s Mayo-12/30, Noon
Pinstripe Bowl-12/29, 2 PM
Sun Bowl-12/30, 2 PM
Military Bowl-12/28 2 PM
Fenway Bowl-12/17 11 AM
You may think it odd that these bowls are listed out of chronological order, but this is on purpose as this is how the ACC has them listed as well. Clearly, the inference is that this is the rough order that the bowls will pick when it comes time to sort out who goes where.
You can probably rule out the Military and the Mayo Bowls as the Tar Heels have played there in recent enough years to where both would want to get someone else in. These are meant to bring crowds to the cities, after all. The others are likely fair game as the Tar Heels haven’t been in Orlando since 2015, El Paso since 2016, Jacksonville since 1998...and everything else would be a first.
It’s also worth noting that the Cheez-It Bowl sent representation to the UNC-Duke game on Saturday, and it’s realistic to expect that the Tar Heels would be high on their list if they finish with a strong record but don’t end up in the NY6 groups. Between the high-octane offense and the hype that’ll likely be building around Drake Maye, the Tar Heels should be in demand.
Birmingham Bowl-12/27, 3:15 PM
Gasparilla Bowl-12/23, 6:30 PM
It speaks to how Carolina has played that they probably aren’t looking at either of these bowls either, as they don’t pick until everyone in Tier I is done. They are also essentially safety nets the ACC has set up in case all the other bowls end up filled up.
With five games to go, there’s a lot still up in the air for Carolina. As the season winds down and teams start to separate themselves, the projections will become a little more clear. The first step, of course, is to keep winning. The second is that if they keep winning, to keep an eye on the CFP rankings to see where Carolina is landing. The first rankings are set for November 1st, or the Tuesday after Carolina’s next game. From there we’ll be able to see what sort of chance they have to climb into NY6 consideration.
One thing is for sure, keep your holidays open, there’ll be football played somewhere in late December by this squad.