Here’s the good news: The ACC currently has eight bowl-eligible teams and four more with a chance to reach the six-win mark. The SEC is the only other major conference with the potential to have 12 bowl-eligible teams, which would set an ACC record.
The bad news? The ACC only has eight bowl tie-ins this year, meaning some qualified programs are going to need an assist.
NC State and Virginia are the only teams in the 14-member ACC that have mathematically been eliminated from the postseason. The conference is guaranteed to add a ninth bowl-eligible team this weekend, as the winner of the Pitt-Syracuse game will earn its sixth win. Barring an upset, North Carolina is also likely to join the club, as the Tar Heels are playing an overmatched Old Dominion team.
“It’s extremely important that there’s a home for your bowl-eligible teams,” said UNC coach Larry Fedora, whose team has battled back from a 1-5 start. “Nobody knows how it’s all going to shake out, but in the long run, it usually works out. One good thing about it is fans travel and they love bowl games, so there’s usually going to be a home.”
The ACC’s bowl partnerships and selection process will change next year and become more favorable to the expanded version of the ACC, but this fall, the league faces the task of making sure the hard work of their eligible teams doesn’t go unrewarded in the postseason.
“We’re proactively talking with bowls across the country that may have exposure in terms of not getting their contracts filled to see if we might be a good fit for them,” said Michael Strickland, the ACC’s associate commissioner for football operations.
Strickland wouldn’t comment on which bowls the ACC is looking into, but there are options available. The New Era Pinstripe Bowl will not have a Big 12 team, regardless of how many teams that conference sends to the BCS. At 3-7, Army also will not fill its slot in the Poinsettia Bowl.
“Certainly we’ll want to evaluate opportunities that make sense in terms of attractive destinations and quality opponents, if we’re so fortunate to have options,” Strickland said. “Those are some of the same factors we used this spring on our future bowl deals. We just had a nice league-wide discussion about what’s important to us in bowl opportunities, so this might give us an opportunity to implement some of those philosophies if we’re so fortunate to have options.”
The ACC has seven non-BCS bowl contracts, and a longstanding partnership with the Discover Orange Bowl, home of the ACC champion. It also has a conditional partnership with the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, but BYU has already accepted an invitation, and the Pac-12, which currently has eight bowl-eligible teams, will fill the opposing slot.
If Florida State plays for the national title and Clemson plays in the Orange Bowl as many predict, it would help open another slot in the ACC. It would also be the second time in three years that the ACC has had two teams in BCS bowls.
This year, the final year of the ACC’s current bowl contract, there is a selection order. After the national championship and the Orange Bowl, the order is as follows: Chick-fil-A Bowl, Russell Athletic Bowl, Hyundai Sun Bowl, Belk Bowl, Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Advocare V100 Bowl, and the Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman. There is a one-win rule within conference play that helps govern the selection process. (For example, a 3-5 team can’t be chosen over a 5-3 team).
Next year, the selection process will turn into more of a discussion than a hierarchy.
“We’re putting more emphasis on regions, so that the games are more accessible for fans, putting more value on unique on-field matchups, so there’s a lot more flexibility in the selection process in the new contracts than we’ve got in the current contracts,” Strickland said. “No one game is more or less important or valuable than the other. They’re all equal, and we all get together as partners – the bowls and conferences involved – to determine what makes the most sense for everybody.”
For the next six years, the ACC will have more bowl options, starting with the College Football Playoff and the host bowls. The Capital One bowl is another possibility if the Big Ten is the ACC’s opponent in the Orange Bowl. The conference will also have contracts with the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Pinstripe Bowl, the Belk Bowl, the Sun Bowl, and a combination of the Music City and Gator Bowls (three years at each). The ACC will also continue its relationships with the Independence Bowl, Military Bowl, and has added relationships with the new Detroit Lions Bowl, and the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., and a bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
“Right there you’re got a number of opportunities,” Strickland said. “That gives us that added depth we think we’ll need. Those were the first contracts we could negotiate at a 14-member league. We evaluated our historical bowl eligibility numbers based upon our new membership mix and then negotiated deals accordingly.”
At least six ACC teams have earned bowl bids in each of the past seven years, but not since 2008 has the ACC had 10 teams qualify, which was an NCAA record that year.
“I think it speaks to the strength of the conference,” said Boston College coach Steve Addazio, whose Eagles made one of the biggest turnarounds in the country this year and have won three straight to become bowl eligible with last week’s win against NC State. “The ACC, our conference is very, very strong. Not only do we have strength at the top, we’re also having a lot of programs like ours that have been down and are coming back up and creating great balance. It’s a good problem to have.”
And one the ACC has already begun trying to solve.