Usually at some point every year, I revisit the ACC football bowl game selection process. Part of that is because it's confusing and I have to remind myself of it and the other part is I'm flat out getting old and my memory is no longer my strong suit.
After Pitt's selection into the Pinstripe Bowl, I wanted to go back and take a look at the ACC selection process. In doing so it became pretty clear that Pitt missed out on a good opportunity to sneak into an elite bowl game this year for two main reasons.
Before I mention those, here's a great resource for the ACC Bowl selection process (I mean, assuming it's correct and everything). In a nutshell, the ACC doesn't send teams purely on how they finished in the standings. Bowls are about making money and getting opposing fans to come, so that makes sense. It's a bit unfair to teams (especially as we saw last year with Pitt getting passed over by teams that made Tier One Bowls that they were ahead of) but also helps to ensure that bowls get a good chance to sell tickets and stay affiliated with the ACC. Play nice, everyone.
So since the slots aren't automatically in terms of conference standings, there's always a bit of a mess. But essentially, things work like this.
If an ACC team gets selected into the College Football Playoff, that's where they go, obviously. While the ACC is a good bet to get into there, with only four spots and five P5 conferences, at least one conference always gets left out (Looking at you, Big 12). The key thing here is to make sure you get at least one team into the CFP. Beyond getting a chance to win your conference a national championship, it's important that your best team not eat up a slot in your conference's bowl lineup. That forces everyone down a peg and is just a bad deal. Get two teams into the CFP? Even better.
After that, you've got the Orange Bowl. Now, if the Orange Bowl is not in the CFP lineup (like this year), the good news for the ACC is that they get to send a team there next. That happened this year, and they got Florida State.
Next up is the Citrus. The Citrus Bowl is typically an SEC-Big Ten Game. But in years that the Orange is not in the CFP, they can also replace the Big Ten with the ACC if the Big Ten gets into the Orange Bowl. That scenario happened this year with Michigan getting in there, so you had Louisville get into the Citrus Bowl - a New Year's Day Bowl.
Finally, remaining in the conference's top four bowls this year is the Russell Athletics Bowl. They get the second pick of the ACC (behind the Citrus after the CFP and Orange Bowl ACC teams have been taken). So instead of getting one of those three teams, they settled on Miami - not a bad settle since they're in Florida.
Now, we can talk about Pitt being hosed all we want. But if you're Virginia Tech, you're probably not real happy. They were the Coastal Division champ and runner up in the title game - yet they didn't even get into one of these four games. Them? They're headed to the Belk Bowl. Despite having a better record than Miami and winning head to head, and having an identical record to Florida State and Louisville, they were passed over by those three other bowls by those teams. Perhaps they wanted to go to the Belk over the Russell because of proximity, but they also were bested by Clemson and Florida State, and then passed up by the Citrus. Essentially, they were the conference runner up (and not all that far away from being conference champion) and ended up in the ACC's fifth-best bowl option this season.
From a Pitt perspective, there were three reasons that made this such a great year for them to get into one of these bowls. First, the ACC sent Clemson to the College Football Playoff. Had they lost against Virginia Tech, perhaps no one from the ACC gets in and that pushes everyone down a notch. But if you're Pitt, you wanted to get them in there and that's what happened. And again, it's also the reason why it's so vital for conferences to place at least one team there. Otherwise, you've got Clemson eating up one of the other three bowls.
Second, Notre Dame had a down year. That's important because if they are bowl-eligible, they can eat up a slot in the ACC's lineup. And not only that, but they can knock a better team down a peg. With them not being bowl-eligible this year, they left one of those bowls open for a team like Pitt.
In other words, Pitt had a great chance of getting into a major ACC bowl this year without winning the conference. Not that they were realistically better than teams like Florida State and Louisville - only that because the conference sent a team to the playoff and didn't have Notre Dame in the way, there were just better bowls available to more ACC teams.