Knocking on the door: UNC, ECU, Charlotte all just one win from bowl eligibility

Three teams in N.C. are on college football’s version of the Bubble

It's been a disappointing football season in Chapel Hill, but running back Ty Chandler and the Tar Heels can qualify for a bowl with a win in any of their final three games. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

The final month of the college basketball regular season is devoted to the Bubble. Teams look to add impressive wins and avoid upsets to impress the selection committee and earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

There is no bubble in college football. Football is a game of advancement, and, true to its nature, there is a line that needs to be crossed. The goal line, the first down marker and six wins.

If a team wins six games, it qualifies for a bowl — and with the sheer number of bowl games out there, a spot in one is virtually guaranteed. If it doesn’t reach the six-win line, it’s home for the holidays.

In North Carolina, three teams have already crossed the line — Wake Forest, NC State and Appalachian State. All three are playing to improve the prestige, and payoff amount, of the bowl they get selected to attend.

One team, Duke, is still mathematically alive in its quest to reach the line, but prospects seem sufficiently dim to set the Blue Devils aside for the year. If Duke knocks off Virginia Tech and Louisville, we can revisit its chances heading into the season finale against Miami.

That leaves three teams in the state looking to reach the line. All three helped themselves last weekend with big wins to reach five victories on the season. Here’s a look at the cut-and-dried situations that make up college football’s version of the Bubble.

Consolation prize

North Carolina certainly never thought it would be anywhere near the Bubble as November wore on. The Tar Heels opened the season in the top 10 and had hopes of a College Football Playoff berth. Instead, the Heels have been inconsistent, losing the opener to Virginia Tech and suffering upset losses to FSU and Georgia Tech along the way. The bowl won’t be what Carolina was hoping for, but missing a bowl would be a crushing blow in an already disappointing year.

UNC got a big boost last week with its upset of then-No. 10 Wake Forest. That victory got the Tar Heels to five wins on the season. With a home game against FCS team Wofford still on the schedule, Carolina should be able to avoid going into the regular season finale needing to beat rival NC State to become bowl eligible. The Wolfpack would love nothing more than being the team that sends the Tar Heels home.

Before Wofford and the Pack, however, UNC can take care of business on Thursday night at Pitt.

Bowl outlook: Near lock for the season, toss-up to get there this week

Ending the drought

East Carolina hasn’t been to a bowl game since the 2014 season. The Pirates have only reached the five-win mark once since then, the following year, before winning their fifth last Saturday with a 45-3 blowout of Temple.

ECU has now won two straight games to move to 5-4 on the season.

Like UNC, the last thing East Carolina wants to do is go into the final week of the season still needing its sixth win. That’s because the Pirates close with Cincinnati, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation. That means that ECU needs a win in one of the next two games, which are both on the road.

This week, the Pirates get Memphis, who is 5-4 on the year. The Tigers are 4-1 at home, while ECU has lost both AAC road games so far this year.

If ECU can’t get past Memphis, it will head to Annapolis next week to face a 2-7 Navy team in what amounts to a must-win. The Middies have lost four straight games and are just 1-4 at home.

Bowl outlook: You have to like their chances to get there, but it’s a toss-up for this week

Making it a habit

Charlotte made its first bowl appearance in program history in 2019. COVID blew up last season’s chances as the 49ers struggled to even play games, let alone win them. If the 49ers can return to a bowl this year, it would be two in the last three years.

Charlotte snapped a two-game losing streak last week, beating Rice to move to 5-4 on the year. The season-opening upset of Duke is going a long way toward helping the 49ers’ stretch run for bowl eligibility. Now they need just one win in their final three games.

Two of the three foes have losing records. This week’s opponent, Louisiana Tech, is 2-7. If Charlotte goes into the final week of the season needing a sixth win, it closes with 3-6 Old Dominion. In between, the 49ers have C-USA East-leading Marshall, the only home game for Charlotte in the last three.

Bowl outlook: Best bet of the three to get there this week. It would be a monumental shock if they don’t get to six this year.