North Carolina’s loss to N.C. State in its regular-season finale cost the Tar Heels more than just bragging rights.
It eliminated a chance for UNC (6-6) to potentially claim a spot in one of the ACC’s Tier I bowls. Had the Heels finished 7-5 and dropped N.C. State to 8-4, it would have left the ACC with three teams (UNC, NCSU, Miami) that would be eligible for one spot in either the Cheez-It Bowl (Orlando), Gator Bowl (Jacksonville) or Holiday Bowl (San Diego).
The league has a rule that a team with a better record can only be surpassed in the bowl order if one win separates the teams.
The winner of Wake-Pitt in Saturday’s ACC title game will possess the bid to the New Year’s Six tie-in. This season that’s most likely going to mean the Peach Bowl instead of the Fiesta Bowl. The loser of Wake-Pitt along with Clemson will claim two of the league’s Tier I bowl bids.
The Tar Heels can’t skip ahead of any teams for a Tier I bowl. The ACC has four other teams with a .500 record — Louisville, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Boston College. Those schools, along with 7-5 Miami, are the ones who will be in consideration for five bowl tie-ins.
The league’s Tier II bids are for the Pinstripe Bowl (New York), the Duke’s Mayo Bowl (Charlotte) and the Sun Bowl (El Paso). Its Tier III bids are for the Military Bowl (Annapolis) and Fenway Bowl (Boston).
Most bowl projections have the Heels playing in the Pinstripe Bowl, which is held in Yankee Stadium, against a Big Ten opponent.
Carolina hasn’t played in Charlotte for a bowl since it was still called the Belk Bowl back in 2013, so it could be attractive for Duke’s Mayo Bowl organizers. The reason why they may look elsewhere is because UNC faced South Carolina in the 2019 season opener in Charlotte. It may simply be too soon to go back to Charlotte.
The ACC’s remaining bowl eligible team that doesn’t play in its bowl tie-ins will be the choice of either the Gasparilla Bowl (Tampa), the Birmingham Bowl or the First Responder Bowl (Dallas).
Regardless of where Carolina ends up playing its bowl, the memory of its collapse in the final two minutes against the Wolfpack will have it working on closing out games. UNC coach Mack Brown after the game repeatedly referenced that the Heels had to learn how to finish.
Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel put the blame squarely on their execution because he said the Heels go over scenarios like their end of game coverages on defense and recovering on-sides kicks every week in practice.
“We work on late-game situations so often it’s something that we as players have to be accountable for,” Gemmel said. “You can’t say it’s the coaches because the coaches get us ready for situations like that every single day.”
Despite heading into the postseason with that disappointment lingering, there’s still a silver lining from making a bowl. Brown has talked about the importance of gaining added practice time during bowl preparation. It allows the team to incorporate younger players who didn’t play much during the season more into practice repetitions.
“That’s really, really important to us as young as we are that we get the 13 extra practices,” Brown told reporters on a video conference last week. “And it prepares you better for next (year).”
Carolina expects to have several early enrollees from its 2022 recruiting class who will sign during the early period on Dec. 15. Brown said those players who graduated high school early are allowed to join the team for practice leading up to the bowl.
All bowl games will be officially announced on Sunday.
UNC bowl projections
ESPN.com: Fenway Bowl vs. UCF/Pinstripe Bowl vs. Penn State
The Athletic: Pinstripe Bowl vs. Maryland
College Football News: Pinstripe Bowl vs. Penn State
Sports Illustrated: Sun Bowl vs. Arizona State
CBS Sports: Gasparilla Bowl vs. Western Kentucky