North Carolina AD Cunningham makes case for playoff

North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham didn’t dismiss the thought earlier this week that there is some lobbying going on, some old-fashioned backdoor politicking among conference officials hoping to sway the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.

“I think there is,” Cunningham said during an interview earlier this week.

Time, after all, is running out. We’re down to the nitty-gritty now. The leading contenders for the College Football Playoff are clear enough: Clemson and Alabama. Oklahoma and Iowa. Those are the top four teams in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings, which were released on Tuesday.

As for the other teams with any kind of shot: they’re left to hope that they can win a game, if there’s one left to play, and hope that other teams lose. Or hope, in UNC’s case, for chaos and maybe a small miracle.

The Tar Heels are 10th in the College Football Playoff Rankings. They have won 11 consecutive games — a school record for a single season — and have often looked good, really good, in doing so. Yet 11-1 UNC finds itself behind three two-loss teams in the latest playoff rankings.

UNC is making progress, at least. Not too long ago the Tar Heels were behind five two-loss teams. The question is whether UNC has made enough progress in the rankings, and whether a victory against No. 1 Clemson on Saturday provides UNC with any real chance of making the playoff.

The Tar Heels’ place in the rankings suggests they have little chance of making the playoff with a victory against the Tigers in the ACC Championship game. Not that Cunningham, the athletic director, is giving up. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“I think the number one criteria that came out, when we got into the College Football Playoff, was conference champion,” Cunningham said. “And if we become the ACC conference champion, with one loss, and 10 wins against Power 5 conference (opponents) we should be in the playoff. “There’s no question in my mind.”

Yet in the minds of people who will decide the playoff’s four teams — those belonging to the selection committee — exist lots of questions. Though perhaps they’re not as much questions so much as they are doubts about UNC’s legitimacy.

The Tar Heels’ 17-13 season-opening loss against South Carolina is the primary reason for those doubts but not the only one. There’s also UNC’s schedule, which included two FCS opponents (North Carolina A&T and Delaware), and the perception, fair or not, that UNC has beaten up on a weak ACC. How much can UNC allay those doubts with a victory against unbeaten and No. 1 Clemson? And can UNC change the committee’s perception so much that it moves up six spots, from No. 10 in the rankings to somewhere inside the playoff cut line?

“If we can beat Clemson, we’ll have 10 Power 5 wins,” Cunningham said. “And that’s going to be more than Ohio State and it’ll be the same as Stanford, should they win. If we win the game, I think it’s down to Stanford, Ohio State and North Carolina for the last spot. Assuming Alabama wins.”

Stanford plays USC on Saturday in the Pac-12 Championship game. Ohio State, meanwhile, is out of the Big Ten championship game, left to watch Michigan State and Iowa play there. The winner of that game will be in the playoff. Alabama will be in the playoff, assuming it beats Florida in the SEC Championship game.

Oklahoma, which won the Big 12, is in. Which leaves one spot. Right now it belongs to Clemson. But if the Tar Heels win on Saturday? Cunningham thinks it’s pretty clear: UNC belongs in the playoff. Yes, he’s biased. But the College Football Playoff is a system built on bias — the notion, with little concrete evidence, that one conference is superior to another, that one loss (say, UNC’s defeat against South Carolina) is worse than another (like, for instance, Oklahoma’s defeat against Texas).

And if UNC wins on Saturday, it will have won 12 consecutive games, and will have a better win — the one against Clemson — than any other team in the country, by virtue of just having beaten the No. 1 team. Yet, still, it appears likely the committee would place more emphasis on what happened back in early September rather than what happened in early December.

“Yeah, South Carolina was a bad loss,” Cunningham said.

“But on a neutral site, three-turnover game and (you) lose by four points. Certainly Ohio State got a pass last year on losing at home to Virginia Tech.”

If UNC beats Clemson on Saturday, you can expect coach Larry Fedora and his players to state their case, loudly, for being included in the College Football Playoff. Cunningham is preemptively doing the same, though he acknowledged his lobbying “puts more pressure on the game” on Saturday. Yet he knows, too, that this is how the system works. There are some politics involved, some clandestine conversations with administrators and conference officials making cases for one school over the other, jockeying for position for four coveted spots. There’s the public case-making, too.

“I do think the media will have some sway to it,” Cunningham said.

If UNC loses on Saturday it’s all a moot point. It’s out.

But if the Tar Heels win? Well, in that case at least UNC has already started to make its argument.