(Cue ESPN 30 for 30 music)
What if I told you a league expanded for football, and then had more bowl-eligible teams than it had guaranteed spots?
That is the position the ACC finds itself in after Pitt's win over Miami gave the league 11 teams that have qualified for bowls. The ACC has 10 guaranteed spots, plus an overflow spot, meaning every ACC bowl tie-in is covered. So how then is the league coming up short?
Blame Notre Dame.
The short version is that Notre Dame is taking one of the ACC's slots as part of its partial membership agreement with the league. The Irish, who were ranked in the top 10 when UNC played them in early October, have lost four games in a row and have fallen to 7-5 and out of bigger bowl consideration. That places them in the ACC mix along with the other 11 teams that have reached the six-win or more mark.
Joe Giglio of the News and Observer has an excellent explanation of all the bowl machinations here, but the brief synopsis is this: FSU is guaranteed a spot in the bowls controlled by the College Football Playoff, most likely in the Final Four. The Orange Bowl will take the highest-ranked team after FSU, which right now is Georgia Tech. The Russell Athletic Bowl then has the next pick, and sources are indicating this spot will go to Clemson.
Here's where it gets interesting. The ACC has affiliations with seven bowl games; four are considered Tier I games and the other three are Tier II. The Tier I games are the Pinstripe Bowl in New York, the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, the Sun Bowl in El Paso, and the Music City Bowl in Nashville or the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, FL. There are four ACC teams in consideration for the Tier I bowls: Duke (9-3), Louisville (9-3), Boston College (7-5), and NC State (7-5). The problem is that Notre Dame at 7-5 enters that mix, so there are five teams for four spots. Duke and Louisville are guaranteed games in this tier, so it is essentially Notre Dame, BC, and State fighting it out for two spots in Tier I.
The Tier II bowls are the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, the Military Bowl in Annapolis, MD, and the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, LA. The ACC also has an overflow spot in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl in Florida. The ACC's Coastal Four - Pitt, Virginia Tech, Miami, and North Carolina, all at 6-6, plus the 7-5 team that is not selected for a Tier I game, are in play here. That's five teams for four spots, and since the 7-5 team has to be placed, it's really four teams for three spots.
Conventional wisdom has said that among the Tier I games, the Pinstripe may not be interested in Notre Dame since the Irish played there last year. BC makes sense as a regional choice there, as does Louisville to the Music City Bowl. That leaves Notre Dame and NC State fighting it out for a Belk Bowl bid, and it may be difficult for Charlotte to pass on a chance to get a name like the Irish.
As for Tier II bowls, regional alignment would favor State to the Military Bowl for a potential Kobayashi Maru game against East Carolina. Miami would be a natural choice for St. Petersburg, leaving UNC, Pitt, and VT to fight it out for Detroit and Shreveport. A northern alignment for Pitt to Detroit seems logical, and VT's 20+ year streak of bowl games would not be broken for lack of guaranteed slots. Plus, given that UNC fans seem to have no interest in Shreveport, and I'm not convinced after the horrific 2011 game that Shreveport wants UNC back, it may be the Tar Heels on the outside looking in at the ACC's bowl tie-ins.
So does that mean a bowl-eligible UNC team doesn't get to a bowl game? It's possible, but highly unlikely. The good news for Carolina is that there are some bowls whose tie-ins will not qualify. Specifically, the Armed Services Bowl in Ft. Worth, Texas has Army as a choice, but Army will not make it. Also the Cactus Bowl in Tempe, Arizona has a Big 12 tie-in but that league will not have enough bowl-eligible teams unless Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma this weekend. The Heart of Dallas Bowl may also be in play since the Big 10 will also not have enough teams to fill its tie-ins. Even if UNC is shut out of the ACC order, there may be as many as three alternative landing spots.
There has also been some suggestion by some talking heads that UNC fall on its sword and decline a bowl bid to help out the league and appease the NCAA hounds that may be coming back after the AFAM mess. This is based on some revisionist history that a similar move in 2011 may have averted the 2012 bowl ban that kept UNC out of the ACC Championship game, but A) that is grounded in hindsight and B) there was no cause to think at the time a bowl ban was in play; it was only later UNC became the first school to get a bowl ban without a finding of lack of institutional control. This became a moot point on Sunday anyway when Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham indicated UNC was not considering declining a bid.
In the end, I predict the ninja commissioner John Swofford will find a way to ensure all 11 ACC teams plus Notre Dame have a place to land. There was too much political capital expended on expansion in the name of football to have a bowl-eligible team not find a place to play, particularly one as hesitant on expansion as UNC was. And it may work out that UNC finds Dallas, Fort Worth, or Tempe to be a much better bowl destination than Detroit or Shreveport. We'll all have more clarity next Sunday when the bowl selections are announced, but for now, the possibility of not even making a bowl just adds to the sting of the stinker in Kenan on Saturday.