Tar Heels watch, wait for possible Orange Bowl berth

UNC needs help — a Clemson win the ACC Championship Game should do it — to reach its first major bowl in 70 years

UNC coach Mack Brown could take the Tar Heels somewhere they haven’t been in seven decades — a major bowl. (Al Diaz / Miami Herald via AP)

The last time North Carolina was headed to a major bowl game, the world was hoping to have a vaccine available soon to help fend off a disease that had ravaged society — polio.

It was Jan. 2, 1950. For the third time in four years, the University of North Carolina played in one of the big four bowl games — Rose, Cotton, Orange, Sugar — losing to Rice in the Cotton Bowl, 27-13. The Tar Heels had also made two trips to the Sugar Bowl — losing to Georgia on New Year’s 1947 and to Oklahoma two years later.

Mack Brown hadn’t been born yet. Neither had Roy Williams. Neither had the ACC.

UNC has not returned to one of the major bowls since.

Oh, sure, the Tar Heels have been bowling, but it’s been a collection of second-tier games — seven Gators, five Peaches, four Suns and a host of games named after mechanics and auto parts stores.

Carolina has been to Honolulu, Las Vegas, Detroit and Shreveport. But for 70 years, other teams went to the Rose, Cotton, Orange and Sugar.

So many other teams. Of the 65 current members of the Power Five, 58 have been to a major bowl since UNC’s last trip. Duke has been three times. Kansas has gone twice. Non-Power Five team Cincinnati has been twice. Hawaii, Wyoming, Memphis and Rice have all gone to major bowls since the Tar Heels’ last trip.

The list of Power Five teams with droughts as long as North Carolina’s is sobering: Arizona, South Carolina, NC State, Iowa State, Rutgers and Vanderbilt.

That could all change this year. The proverbial sleeping giant received a wake-up call, loud and clear, when the Tar Heels demolished Miami last weekend, traveling to South Florida and hammering the Hurricanes, 62‑26.

It was UNC’s first win over a top-10 team in 16 years and a gigantic breakthrough after a near-miss last year against Clemson and a decisive loss to Notre Dame two weeks earlier.

“For us, as a team, this was a must-win,” quarterback Sam Howell said. “This was a game we couldn’t lose.”

It was also a game that, all too often over the last seven decades, the Tar Heels found a way to come up short.

Heading into this year, the Tar Heels were 13-13 as a ranked team since the end of Mack Brown’s first tenure as head coach. That includes a 2-6 record in their last eight. Since their trip to the 1950 Cotton Bowl, the Heels are 10-22 when both they and their opponent are ranked. This year, the Heels are 3-1 in ranked-vs.-ranked matchups. That equals the number of ranked-vs.-ranked wins Carolina had from 1997 to 2016.

“I think it makes a statement that we’re a confident team that wasn’t scared to go on the road against a team that’s already won (eight) games with the Orange Bowl on the line,” Brown said. “And that confidence is something I didn’t think we had the second half of Notre Dame as a team. I thought we showed spurts. But as a team, we didn’t have it. We weren’t ready to step up and win that game. … This team was ready tonight to be confident enough not to be afraid on the road, not to be afraid of a really good Miami team, not to be afraid of everybody saying they weren’t good enough to win. And then playing for 60 minutes. So that’s what I’m most proud of is that the leaders on this team have taught this entire team — which is really, really young — to step up and play with confidence tonight.”

The win cleared a path for the Tar Heels to get to the Orange Bowl. Most major bowl projections have UNC headed there, although the Heels still need a little help to secure the bid.

Most importantly, the Tar Heels need Clemson to beat Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday. That would leave the Tigers and Irish 1-1 against each other this year and, according to most major projections, earn both teams a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The Orange Bowl berth goes to the highest-rated ACC team not chosen for the Playoff, which would be Carolina.

Even if Clemson loses, the Tigers could get chosen for the Playoff if the other conference championship games break right — an Ohio State loss in the Big Ten title game is a must.

Of course, if the Irish beat the Tigers for a second time and the Tar Heels’ luck doesn’t hold up in the other games, then Clemson will drop to the Orange Bowl and leave the Heels ready to add to their list of Close but No Cigar Bowls — perhaps the Cheez-It Bowl or an eighth trip to the Gator.

“I might watch a little bit of the game,” Tar Heel linebacker Chazz Surratt said of Clemson-Notre Dame. “We are definitely pulling for Clemson to win it. We’ll see.”