While Clemson and Virginia Tech appear intent on taking the drama out of the ACC’s division races, the jockeying for bowl position is just beginning.
With wins by Wake Forest and Florida State on Saturday, the ACC already has six bowl-eligible teams with three weeks left in the regular season. There are three more five-win teams and three four-win teams that could still qualify.
Then there’s Duke, at 3-6, which could either win out or even qualify for a bowl at 5-7, based on its academic performance. Three 5-7 teams made a bowl last year under such conditions.
Notre Dame’s out there treading water, too, at 3-6. The only team that’s cooked is Virginia (2-7).
Clemson, at 9-0 overall and 6-0 in the league, would need to lose to both Pitt (at home this week) and at Wake Forest (Nov. 19) to fall behind Louisville (8-1, 6-1). Let’s be honest here, that’s probably not going to happen.
Virginia Tech leads the Coastal side, at 5-1, by virtue of its win over UNC, who is also 5-1. The Hokies close their ACC schedule with Georgia Tech and Virginia — both at home. Again, the odds are against a stumble by the Hokies.
While the ACC title game appears clear cut, the bowl order will be as complicated as ever. Even by ACC standards, this year could be a doozy.
Clemson, at No. 2 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, would be in the national semifinals, likely the Fiesta Bowl, if it wins out.
Louisville, No. 7 last week in the CFP rankings, would be the ACC’s representative in the Orange Bowl, if it didn’t finish in the CFP top four. The ACC has a “contract” with the Orange so even when its champion moves up, the league gets a team in Miami.
This is where it gets a little tricky. If the committee puts a Big Ten team in the Orange Bowl (and that’s based on their rankings), a spot for the ACC would open up in the Citrus Bowl on Dec. 31 in Orlando.
That would be in addition to the spot the ACC already has in the Russell Athletic Bowl in the same stadium in Orlando on Dec. 28.
The ACC’s contract with the Gator Bowl (now called the TaxSlayer Bowl) calls for the league to play there three times in a six-year period. In the first two years of the agreement, the Gator Bowl has not taken an ACC team (but the Music City Bowl in Nashville has).
That doesn’t automatically mean they have to take an ACC team this year but it would make more sense to keep their options open going forward rather than be locked into taking an ACC team in the final three years of the deal.
UNC has one of those “good” dilemmas. At No. 21 in the CFP rankings, the Heels have a chance to finish 10-2 and move up. Unfortunately, this is a year in the playoff configuration where there’s only one at-large spot open (in the Cotton Bowl) in the “New Year’s Six” games.
There’s probably not a scenario where UNC jumps up that high but stranger things have happened. The real dilemma for UNC is Orlando, where it played last year (and lost big to Baylor), would potentially have the next two choices.
There are worse things than going to Orlando two years in a row for a bowl game but a trip to the Gator, in Jacksonville, would be some nice poetry for the resurgent Tar Heels, who haven’t been there since Mack Brown left for Texas in 1997.
Speaking of going to Orlando twice, Virginia Tech is probably headed in that direction with a trip there for the conference championship game and then a spot in either the Citrus or RAB.
Note: the CFP committee has the Hokies at No. 19, two spots ahead of UNC, but how will the committee treat Virginia Tech if/when it loses to Clemson in the ACC title game?
So many scenarios to sort and so much time for it all to change. And then change again.
A weekly review of who’s trending:
↑ WAKE FOREST: True, their schedule’s far from great, but the Demon Deacons have doubled their win total (six) from last year and for that they’ll be in a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
↑ AUBURN: Six straight wins, five in the SEC, might just be enough for the Tigers to jump into the CFP top four. The committee has to prop up the SEC somehow after Texas A&M let it down. Auburn’s only problem at 7-2 is one of their losses is not from Alabama.
↓ CFP committee: Really, Texas A&M in the top four? Did you give Bear Bryant’s ghost a vote?
↓ GEORGIA TECH: Not sure what has happened to the Yellow Jackets (Recruiting? Everyone else catching up to their offense? Combo of both?), but they’re just 3-11 in conference play since winning the Coastal Division title in 2014.