N.C. State and Duke both ended up in what the ACC calls its “Tier I” bowl games, and Pittsburgh, with a better record, did not.
The Panthers (8-4) were a game better than both the Wolfpack and Blue Devils, who each finished 7-5. Pitt beat Duke head-to-head, 31-13 in Durham in November and finished with twice as many ACC wins (six) as N.C. State.
So how did Pitt fall out of the first tier?
There’s not an easy answer, but here’s an attempt at an explanation of how the ACC selection process works, from top to bottom:
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1) The ACC champion is guaranteed a spot in a “New Year’s 6” bowl game. When it is ranked in the top four, it goes to the College Football Playoff.
The CFP selection committee rankings determine who gets in the playoff and the New Year’s 6 games. This year, Clemson (the ACC champion) was selected for the playoff (as the No. 1 seed), and Florida State, No. 9 in the final rankings, was picked as an at-large team for the Peach Bowl.
Last year, Florida State (the champion) was in the playoff, and Georgia Tech (the second-highest ranked ACC team) was picked for the Orange Bowl. The ACC is guaranteed a spot in the Orange Bowl when it is not a CFP semifinal game. The Orange is part of the CFP semifinals this year (and Clemson will play there because it’s the closest site).
2) The Russell Athletic Bowl gets the first choice after the playoff and NY6 games are set. There will be years where the Citrus Bowl (played at the same site in Orlando) will get this choice, but for the first two years of the playoff, it has been the Russell Athletic.
This year, it chose North Carolina (11-2) to face Baylor. Last year, it took Clemson (9-3), which hammered Oklahoma 40-6. Those same two teams will meet Dec. 31 in this year’s CFP semifinals.
3) The Tier I bowls – the Belk Bowl (in Charlotte), the Pinstripe Bowl (in New York), the Sun Bowl (in El Paso, Texas) and either the Gator Bowl (in Jacksonville, Fla.) or Music City (in Nashville) – then get to choose from the eligible teams in the pool.
There’s no order to the selection process in Tier I. The bowl directors and the ACC meet in Charlotte on the day after the ACC championship game and determine the matchups.
The ACC gives the bowl directors the list of eligible teams, and then the bowl directors rank those teams in their order of preference.
If two bowls (or more) pick the same team, there would be a drawing (coin toss for two bowls, some other method for more than two teams) to determine which bowl gets the preferred team.
There were six teams in the pool this year: Miami (8-4), Pittsburgh (8-4), N.C. State (7-5), Duke (7-5), Louisville (7-5) and Virginia Tech (6-6).
According to the ACC’s guidelines for Tier I, the 6-win team can only be selected if both the 8-win teams have already been selected. But the bowls were free to choose any of the 7-win teams over the 8-win teams.
So, technically, if the Pinstripe or Music City had selected Pitt, the Belk Bowl could have taken Virginia Tech for coach Frank Beamer’s last game. That did not happen, which was a break for N.C. State.
The Music City passed over Pitt for Louisville and the Pinstripe preferred Duke to the Panthers. New York’s choice of Duke, which has a strong alumni base in the Tri-State area, is what dropped Pitt out of the tier.
With Virginia Tech (the first choice) off the table, the Belk Bowl went with the in-state Wolfpack over Pitt.
But why were certain teams “protected” in Tier I last year but Pitt wasn’t?
Duke and Louisville were “protected,” or had to stay in Tier I, because there were no other 8-win teams in the pool last year. Duke and Louisville both had 9 wins and could not be bumped by the three 7-5 teams (Boston College, N.C. State and Notre Dame).
Louisville went to the Belk last year (even though the Belk preferred N.C. State), Duke went to the Sun, while the Pinstripe took Boston College and Music City selected Notre Dame. N.C. State dropped into the second tier and wound up at the St. Petersburg Bowl.
The Gator Bowl has to take an ACC team, or Notre Dame, three times in a six-year period, but it has not been involved in the ACC process in the first two years of the contract.
Notre Dame (10-2) finished No. 8 in the CFP rankings and was placed into the Fiesta Bowl as an at-large team.
4) The Tier II bowls – Military (in Annapolis), Independence (Shreveport, La.) and Quick Lane (in Detroit) – select in that order and are subject to the same win guidelines.
So the Military, which has Navy (9-2) on the other side, had to take Pitt over Virginia Tech, which will close out Beamer’s 29-year career in the Independence Bowl against Tulsa (6-6) on Dec. 26.
The ACC didn’t have enough teams to fill its slot in Detroit.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio