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UNC Football: A history of ranked vs. ranked games in Chapel Hill

From FSU in ‘97 to the early day, let’s look at the times ranked battles have graced the Kenan Stadium field.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend at Kenan Stadium will be an occasion that hasn’t come around every year for North Carolina Tar Heels football. It could’ve been an even bigger deal had Miami not lost to Georgia Tech in inexplicable circumstances, but when the Hurricanes come to Chapel Hill, it’ll be a battle of ranked teams.

In the past decade or so, it hasn’t been unheard of for the Tar Heels to be ranked themselves, but there have been other years where they haven’t come close to it. Beyond that, in year where they have been good, they haven’t necessarily always managed to get to host another Top 25 team at a time when both teams have been in the poll. This weekend, we will, and we’ll see if UNC can step up to the occasion.

As we start to focus in on this weekend’s action, let’s dig back into the history books and looks at some of the past instances that Chapel Hill has played host to those types of games.

While the instances of ranked vs. ranked games at Kenan are a bit rare, the last one actually came more recently than you might think, albeit in unusual circumstances. In 2020, then #8 UNC hosted then #19 Virginia Tech in an early season game in the COVID season. As you may remember, COVID affected that season in many different ways, and not all conferences started their seasons at the same time. Both teams’ rankings were probably inflated a bit by other teams like Big Ten and Pac-12 ones not yet showing what they had when that game occurred. On the field, UNC came away with 56-45 win.

I probably don’t have to remind any one of a certain age what they most famous ranked vs. ranked game at Kenan is. In 1997, then #5 UNC hosted then #3 Florida State in a de facto ACC championship game in the final season of the Mack Brown 1.0 era. With even ESPN’s College GameDay in Chapel Hill, it was arguably one of, if not the singularly biggest game in UNC football history, with potential national title implications on the line. Sadly, FSU proved too much, winning 20-3.

Earlier in that season, Carolina had beaten #17 Stanford in Kenan while the Heels themselves were ranked #7.

For the first time it ever happened, you have to go back to the very early days of the AP Poll’s existence. In 1937, the Heels were number #15 when the #10 team came to town. A fact that shows what a different era that was is that said #10 team was Fordham. That day, the Rams handed Carolina their only loss of the season, downing them 14-0.

It took quite a while for UNC to win a ranked-ranked game at home. It took until 1980 for Carolina to get a win of that type, when they were #14 and beat #19 Maryland 17-3, en route to a top 10 finish in the final rankings of that season.

There have been others, and as far as the best win in that type of game, well that’s debatable. Let’s hope that this year’s Tar Heels can add to the collection with a victory this weekend.