Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Pitt was passed over in the ACC bowl selection process for a team with a worse record.
If you’ve been paying attention, not only have you heard that before, it’s happened four of the five years the Panthers have been bowl eligible as an ACC member.
Here’s the rundown:
• In 2014, the 6-6 Panthers were passed over for the Military Bowl (Virginia Tech), Independence Bowl (Miami) and Quick Lane Bowl (North Carolina), all of which had identical .500 records. Pitt ended up washing out of the ACC’s bowl tie-ins and was left to play in the unaffiliated Armed Forces Bowl.
• In 2015, 8-4 Pitt was tied with Miami for the third-best record in the conference, but was passed over for a Tier II bowl by 7-5 NC State and instead went to the Military Bowl.
• In 2016, Pitt was among five 8-4 teams vying for bids in the Citrus Bowl and Tangerine Bowl in Orlando (called the Russell Athletic Bowl then and the Camping World Bowl), the first-choice ACC bowls after the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six. But Louisville was chosen for the Citrus Bowl and Miami also went to Orlando, leaving Pitt in the Tier II Pinstripe Bowl.
• In 2018, the selection process went in Pitt’s favor, as the 7-6 Coastal champs went to the Tier II Sun Bowl over 7-5 Boston College, Duke and Georgia Tech.
• This year, there were two 8-4 teams and two 7-5 teams, including the Panthers, when the four Tier II bowls selected. Not only were the Panthers not taken there, with 6-6 Florida State going to the Sun Bowl, but the Tier III Military Bowl took 6-6 North Carolina and the Independence Bowl took 6-6 Miami before Pitt was selected to play in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.
Of course, since Pitt has joined the ACC in 2013, it hasn’t been hard to see favoritism toward the longer-tenured members of the conference manifest itself in many ways. Is the bowl selection process another time where the new kids on the block are getting left out in the cold?
The Panthers have been the most aggrieved party when it comes to being passed over for bowl selections in that time period, but the teams right behind them are Boston College, which joined the ACC in 2005, and Georgia Tech, which came on board in 1979.
Fellow newcomers Louisville and Syracuse have been helped more frequently than they’ve been hurt in the selection process, with the Cardinals usurping the Panthers in 2016.
That’s probably because the ACC is not the primary driver in the selection process. Though the conference gets some say in addition to instituting the tiers and order that the bowls choose in, and implementing the rule that teams cannot be passed over by schools more than one game behind them in the standings.
But the primary decision-makers are the bowl committees themselves. When it comes to their decision-making, the No. 1 thing they want is eyeballs. Some bowls are more concerned with those that physically arrive on scene, making geographic proximity and ease of travel a priority. Others care more about TV audiences.
Either way, the teams that draw the most attention are the ones that are most frequently over-pursued. Miami has been helped the most often since 2013, with Florida State right behind them. The schools have large, national fanbases, with fans in many cities and are also close enough to the southern bowl games to get their fans to travel.
As with most things in college football, these decisions come down to the almighty dollar, and Pitt’s status as a northern school, with a small, almost exclusively regional fanbase that does not have a reputation as one that travels well is probably going to continue to hurt the Panthers when it comes to bowl-seeding selections for quite some time.
The amount of angst surrounding the end of Pitt’s 2019 season, combined with the unattractive bowl bid and uninspiring opponent that can barely draw at its home stadium 40 miles away from Detroit means there are bound to be plenty of empty seats at Ford Field on Dec. 26.
In this case, it seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Give Pitt a worse bowl game that it deserves because its fans won’t show up, and even fewer will come than otherwise might have. That creates a vicious cycle. Next year, Pitt’s reputation for sending fans to bowl games will likely be even worse than the one that caused them to be passed over three times this year.
There’s no good way to fix that. Pitt fans aren’t going to travel to Detroit on the day after Christmas to see their 7-5 Panthers take on a 6-6 Eastern Michigan team. Heck, they could move the game to Heinz Field and it’d be half empty.
The only way for Pitt to rise in the bowl pecking order is to take advantage of the protections the conference gives. If the Panthers had won one of their final two games, those 6-6 teams would not have been permitted to overtake them.
Then maybe if Pitt ever finds itself in a marquee bowl matchup, it’ll be incumbent on the Panthers’ fans to represent the school well.