Playoff poll takeaways: If North Carolina upsets Clemson, who sneaks into top 4?

With one week to go, 11-1 North Carolina is still sitting down at No. 10 in the committee’s rankings. That doesn’t mean the Tar Heels can’t jump six spots by beating No. 1 Clemson (12-0) in this weekend’s ACC title game. After all, we know from last year that the committee’s final rankings swing wildly based on the conference championship game results.

But right now I don’t like their chances.

Both on television and on a subsequent conference call Tuesday night, committee chairman Jeff Long continued to hammer North Carolina for losing to 3-9 South Carolina in its opener, playing two FCS opponents and for a downright lousy schedule in general.

“Their overall strength of schedule is not strong … [based] on the metrics we look at,” he said. “They’re very high in their strength of schedule [number], which is not a positive for them.”

In Jeff Sagarin’s widely cited strength of schedule ratings, UNC’s (63rd) is about the same as No. 6 Ohio State’s (61st), despite the Buckeyes playing no FCS teams. But the committee does not use Sagarin or any other outside rankings. So I asked Long whether the two are viewed similarly by their own proprietary metrics. His answer will not thrill Tar Heels fans.

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“… In the multiple number of strength of record metrics we look at, they’re not close,” said Long. “It’s clearly in Ohio State’s favor on the strength of schedule.”

Obviously, UNC will improve that number considerably this week when it takes on a 12-0 team. It’s also hard to forecast how the committee will react to what actually transpires in the game. If the Tar Heels come out and dominate the Tigers, will that render moot their resume shortcomings the same way Oklahoma buried its Texas loss by beating multiple top-20 teams?

It’s possible. But right now I’d say it’s unlikely. Which means it’s time to ponder who makes it instead.

I suppose it’s possible Clemson could lose but remain in the top four, but that would make a mockery of not just one but two committee criteria — winning a conference championship and head-to-head results. Both enter the equation come Sunday.

Many believe Ohio State will rejoin the fold. After all, the 11-1 Buckeyes are sitting just two spots behind now and we already know one of the teams just above them, No. 4 Iowa or No. 5 Michigan State, is also going to lose this weekend.

Personally, I don’t like the Buckeyes’ chances either.

The selection committee’s official protocol explicitly states that a non-champion of a conference will be selected if it is “unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.” An Ohio State team that did not notch its first Top-25 win of the season until the final game against Michigan hardly rises to the level of “unequivocal.”

The team that could wind up crashing this party is the one currently sitting just one spot behind the Buckeyes: No. 7 Stanford (10-2).

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While the Buckeyes will be sitting at home this weekend, the Cardinal have a chance to add two more notches to their resume: another Top-25 win against No. 20 USC and, most importantly, a conference championship. Furthermore, Stanford would then claim eight wins over bowl-eligible Power 5 teams, five of those with eight or more wins. Ohio State, by contrast, owns four and one, respectively.

It stands to reason an 11-2 Pac-12 champion with that considerable a resume would be able to supplant the 11-1 non-champion sitting right above it.

The wild card here is North Carolina. The committee has made it clear just how negatively it views the Tar Heels’ schedule, but a decisive win over the No. 1 team in the country played the very night it begins deliberating could change its perception considerably. UNC could end up No. 4 after all. It’s just impossible to predict.

I only feel confident predicting Stanford will pass Ohio State. So Buckeyes fans best spend Saturday night rooting for both UNC and USC.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.

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