ACC Power Rankings: A spot in the Orange Bowl is the real prize

While everyone tries to figure out who the second-best team in the ACC is, the team that stands to be rewarded come bowl selection time might just be the third-best team.

How’s that for some “#GoACC” logic?

Losses by Virginia and Wake Forest this past week naturally sparked a “Well, who’s No. 2?” debate among ACC fans.

You throw in Duke’s loss to Pittsburgh and Miami’s to Virginia Tech the previous week and you can twist yourself into a double helix trying to sort the mediocrity behind Clemson and ahead of Georgia Tech.

But with the ACC’s contracted spot in the Orange Bowl available this season, the real winner might be the third-best team. This, of course, assumes the Coastal Division winner is the second-best team in the ACC. That’s not always the case but let’s take a half-step back.

Three times in the College Football Playoff era (2014-), the ACC has sent a team, other than its champion, to the conference’s guaranteed spot in the Orange Bowl. So if Clemson goes back to the CFP, for a fifth straight year, then the ACC has an open spot in the Orange Bowl (this is the case when the Orange Bowl is not a CFP semifinal host site).

Twice, that was the Coastal Division winner with Miami (10-2 after an ACC title game loss to Clemson) going to the Orange Bowl in 2017 and Georgia Tech (10-3 after an ACC title game loss to Florida State) going in 2014. But in 2016, it was 9-3 Florida State over the Coastal winner, 9-4 Virginia Tech, who ended up in the Orange Bowl.

The league’s spot in the Orange is based purely on the CFP rankings, so the unofficial bowl standards (ticket sales or television appeal) don’t apply to the process. You could see a scenario, and a fairly likely one, where Wake Forest (5-1) could close out at 10-2 or 9-3 and might be in a better position to make the Orange Bowl than the Coastal Division winner (especially if it’s North Carolina since it beat UNC on Sept. 14).

Of course, the Coastal winner could beat Clemson and then the ACC champion would get the spot in the Orange.

More likely, and since the Coastal is extra wacky (is chaosy a word?) this year, there could be a scenario where two or three teams finish 6-2. Then you could be rewarded for not winning the division (if Wake stumbles on the other side).

So if you’re Virginia, UNC, Duke or Pittsburgh maybe you’d prefer a division tie, avoiding Clemson in the ACC title game, and then getting a crack at Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl?

And there’s Notre Dame throwing a wrench into the ACC bowl process. There’s a “rule for the rule” here for the Fighting Irish (5-1) because, well, of course there is.

Notre Dame, when not selected for a CFP bowl, falls into the ACC’s bowl selection process. That’s part of its “five-eighths pregnant” agreement with the league. With one loss already this season, it’s unlikely Notre Dame will make the playoff again.

In the case of the Orange Bowl, however, Notre Dame can’t take the ACC’s contracted spot. But Notre Dame can be the opponent in the Orange (and likely will be if it closes out at 11-1 or 10-2). Confused yet?

Bottom line, the public interest might be in the ACC’s “second-best team” but the real money could be in finishing third.

On with the “Only* ACC Power Rankings That Matter:”

1. Clemson

Record: 6-0, 4-0 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 1

Last game: beat Florida State, 45-14

Next game: at Louisville (Saturday)

The Tigers dropped another spot in the AP poll but only the CFP rankings matter and an unbeaten Clemson will not be left out.

2. Wake Forest

Record: 5-1, 1-1 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 2

Last game: lost to Louisville, 62-59

Next game: vs. Florida State (Saturday)

Special teams and a sleepy-time first quarter cost the Deacs their perfect record.

3. Virginia

Record: 4-2, 2-1 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 3

Last game: lost at Miami, 17-9

Next game: vs. Duke (Saturday)

The Wahoos still have some work to do to close the talent gap with Miami but it won’t be that big of an issue against the rest of the division.

4. Pittsburgh

Record: 4-2, 1-1 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 7

Last game: won at Duke, 33-30

Next game: at Syracuse (Friday)

The Panthers should be able to batter Syracuse’s leaky offensive front. It’s always a dicey proposition to put “should” and a Coastal Division team in the same sentence.

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5. Louisville

Record: 4-2, 2-1 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 12

Last game: won at Wake Forest, 62-59

Next game: vs. Clemson (Saturday)

Feel-good story of the season, for sure, but here comes Clemson to throw some cold water on the Cardinals’ parade.

6. Duke

Record: 4-2, 2-1 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 4

Last game: beat Georgia Tech, 41-23

Next game: at Virginia (Saturday)

Realistically, the Blue Devils need to sweep Virginia-UNC in the next two weeks to win the division.

7. UNC

Record: 3-3, 2-1 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 5

Last game: won at Georgia Tech, 38-22

Next game: at Virginia Tech (Saturday)

Those South Carolina and Miami wins are looking better and better.

8. Miami

Record: 3-3, 1-2 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 6

Last game: beat Virginia, 17-9

Next game: vs. Georgia Tech (Saturday)

The second-most talented team in the ACC but not the second-best team. Such is “The U’s” lot in life.

9. Florida State

Record: 3-3, 2-2 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 8

Last game: lost at Clemson, 45-14

Next game: at Wake Forest (Saturday)

Need to shrug off that Clemson beatdown and get ready for a track meet with Wake Forest. The Noles can win a track meet.

10. N.C. State

Record: 4-2, 1-1 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 11

Last game: beat Syracuse, 16-10

Next game: at Boston College (Saturday)

Huge win over Syracuse but can still do more on offense. There are points for the taking against Boston College’s suspect defense.

11. Boston College

Record: 3-3, 1-2 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 9

Last game: lost at Louisville, 41-39

Next game: vs. N.C. State (Saturday)

The Eagles have lost their last two home games against the Wolfpack and three of the past four overall after starting 7-3 against their favorite Atlantic Division foe.

12. Virginia Tech

Record: 4-2, 1-2 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 13

Last game: beat Rhode Island, 34-17

Next game: vs. UNC (Saturday)

If there’s one team that gets the Hokies’ juices flowing, it’s the Tar Heels. Let’s see what old Bud Foster has for young Sam Howell.

13. Syracuse

Record: 3-3, 0-2 ACC

Previous ranking: No. 10

Last game: lost at N.C. State, 16-10

Next game: vs. Pittsburgh (Friday)

The Orange’s offensive line somehow makes Florida State’s look like Lombardi’s blocks of granite.

14. Georgia Tech

Record: 1-5, 0-3 ACC

Last week: No. 14

Last game: lost at Duke, 41-23

Next game: at Miami (Saturday)

Open date and then four of the final five are at home. Maybe there’s a win in there but probably not.

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Joe Giglio has worked at The N&O since 1995 and has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005. He grew up in Ringwood, N.J. and graduated from N.C. State.
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