This is the big one, UNC fans

The Tar Heels have never played a more important football game than they will Saturday night

UNC football

Tar Heel football players practicing their celebration for when they beat undefeated Clemson on Saturday.

Holy crap, North Carolina fans thought back in October when they started to realize three things: The Tar Heels have a football team, it’s not terrible, and they’re in the Coastal Division. That schedule, which as usual started out hard as room-temperature butter (North Carolina A&T, Illinois and Delaware has to rank as one of the saddest three-game home stretches in Chapel Hill history), was parting like the Red Sea, and if Marquise Williams (that’s mar-KWEECE to you, mister) could avoid becoming a human giveaway machine they might actually play in their first ACC championship game.

And here we are! Turns out, Carolina didn’t even have to have that Williams thing (see Tech, Virginia) to finish 11-1 thanks to a legit offense that’s ranked 16th in the nation and, well, the Coastal Division. Up next is a matchup with No. 1 Clemson (12-0) Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. It will be the biggest game in North Carolina football history.

Yes, there were two Sugar Bowls and a Cotton Bowl in the late 1940s/early 1950s (all losses, by the way). The 1972 and 1980 teams went 11-1, while Mack Brown won 10 or more games in three of his final five seasons from 1993-1997. Along the way, there have been a few, fleeting brushes with greatness, as Andrew Jones of Tar Heel Illustrated did a nice job of breaking down.

Read the entire post here, but there have been seven times since 1972 where, had UNC won, the Tar Heels could have maybe possibly had a chance to play for a national championship or at least not go to the Sun Bowl. The Tar Heels, of course, have never played for a national championship and been to their fair share of Sun Bowls, which should tell you how those games went. But here’s a refresher:

  • Nov. 8, 1997 – No. 3 Florida State 20, No. 4 UNC 3
  • Nov. 16, 1996 – No. 24 Virginia 20, No. 6 UNC 17
  • Oct. 29, 1983 – No. 13 Maryland 28, No. 3 UNC 26
  • Sept. 9, 1982 – No. 1 Pittsburgh 7, No. 5 UNC 6
  • Nov. 7, 1981 – No. 2 Clemson 10, No. 8 UNC 8
  • Nov. 1, 1980 – No. 1 Oklahoma 41, No. 6 UNC 7
  • Sept. 30 1972 – No. 5 Ohio State 29, UNC 14

Seven tries, and that same UNC at the end of the sentence. For our money, the ’97 loss to FSU has the biggest game up to this point as well as most devastating loss considering with how badly the Seminoles manhandled Brown’s best team at Kenan Stadium (those non-conference whippings at the hands of Oklahoma and Ohio State, the only blemishes on otherwise perfect seasons, made a strong argument for scheduling Delaware instead in the future).

This is a football program that, at No. 8, is ranked higher than the basketball team in the same week for the first time since, you guessed it, 1997, and for only the sixth time ever. This is a football program that hasn’t won an ACC championship since 1980. This is a football program that has only twice finished a season inside the AP top 10. This is a football program that has never won 12 games. This is a football program that could make some serious hay this weekend.

The ACC championship hasn’t had a sellout since 2011, but Saturday will end that streak with what is likely to be a record crowd. Another first will be two top-10 teams, as well as the ACC’s big game actually being a more interesting one than the SEC’s, which can only hope Florida doesn’t put up negative points. Most importantly, a Tar Heel upset would turn the BCS playoff on its ear and put North Carolina in the conversation for one of the coveted spots in the final four. That second thing won’t happen no matter what, but the first one could. UNC is good!

LSU is already planning the press conference where it will introduce Larry Fedora as its new head coach.