The Tigers — who have been No. 1 in all five of the College Football Playoff selection committee’s Top 25 — again held that spot with Tuesday’s release of the penultimate rankings, making it a given that if they beat North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game, they will play in a national semifinal.
Of bigger debate is where the placement of the Tar Heels leaves the conference should they pull off the upset on Saturday night?
North Carolina is ranked 10th — giving the ACC its first top-10 clash in 11 title games — but that may be too big of a hill to climb without some major chaos reigning in the final weekend.
Four of the non-ACC teams ahead of the Tar Heels play Saturday in No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State meeting for the Big Ten title, while second-ranked Alabama faces No. 18 Florida in the SEC championship and No. 7 Stanford and No. 20 USC play for the Pac-12 crown.
At No. 3, Big 12 champ Oklahoma is all but in, as is the Hawkeyes-Spartans winner, but should North Carolina win and either or both the Crimson Tide and Cardinal lose, the Tar Heels could have a legitimate argument to jump into the top four.
No. 6 Ohio State, No. 8 Notre Dame and No. 9 Florida State are all idle, but with the Buckeyes and Seminoles not winning their own divisions, North Carolina would have a conference title on their side. The Fighting Irish have two losses — to No. 1 Clemson and No. 7 Stanford — and they also have a schedule that is very comparable to the Tar Heels given their six ACC opponents, including five common opponents in Clemson, Georgia Tech, Pitt, Virginia and Wake Forest.
To summarize: Notre Dame beat Georgia Tech and Pitt by eight each, Virginia by seven and Wake Forest by 21. The Tar Heels won by seven over the Yellow Jackets and Panthers, beat the Cavaliers by 13 and the Demon Deacons by 36.
An ACC champion North Carolina would have bigger wins against two of those shared opponents, along with a victory over one of the teams that beat the Irish (Clemson) and they would have done it with the Tigers holding the No. 1 ranking
Selection committee chairman Jeff Long admitted that as the only one-loss Power 5 team ranked outside the top six that the Tar Heels are being penalized for a schedule that included two FCS teams (North Carolina A&T and Delaware), along with their lone loss coming via three-win South Carolina.
"It isn’t only the FCS victories. It’s the combination of those with a South Carolina loss that is a team that ended up 3-9," Long said. "Again, it’s never just one thing. There’s multiple things in there that have held North Carolina back, their overall strength of schedule is not strong."
That’s a stance on the Tar Heels that also would seem to give Clemson no room for error.
There seems no scenario in which the Tigers, even if they have been atop every one of the CFP’s Top 25, can withstand a loss and still make the final four, though Long wouldn’t go that far as saying Clemson would be out.
"It’s an easy answer for me to say it’s possible," he said. "But I don’t know all the other factors that would play into it."
Would North Carolina have not suffered that loss to the Gamecocks in the season opener, we’d likely be talking about a top-5 clash for the league title.
Instead, it may be all or nothing for the ACC when it comes to the playoff — unless chaos finds its way into someplace besides Bank of America Stadium.