Clemson will play another game this week when the ninth-ranked Tigers take on No. 23 North Carolina for the ACC championship Saturday in Charlotte. Regardless of the outcome, though, Clemson knows it won’t be a part of the College Football Playoff.
Yet unlike last year when the Tigers didn’t play in the ACC title game, there are more possibilities as to where Clemson could spend this bowl season. A New Year’s Six bowl berth is still on the table. So are plenty of other scenarios.
With that in mind, here’s a look at Clemson’s postseason possibilities, including potential bowl opponents.
If Clemson wins the ACC championship…
The Tigers will play in the Orange Bowl.
That much is known in this scenario. The ACC champion automatically gets sent to the Orange Bowl when it’s not part of the CFP. So it will be either Clemson or North Carolina representing the league in Miami later this month.
Awaiting either team will be an opponent from the SEC or the Big Ten with all eyes on the Rose Bowl in helping determine that.
The “Grandaddy of ‘em all” usually takes the next highest-ranked Big Ten team as a replacement for its traditional matchup against the Pac-12 in years when the Big Ten has a team in the CFP (which could very well be Michigan regardless of what the Wolverines do against Purdue in the Big Ten title game). But the Rose Bowl isn’t required to do that.
Ohio State (5) is ranked ahead of Penn State (8) in this week’s CFP rankings, but the Buckeyes played in the Rose Bowl last season. Potentially wanting some new blood, the Rose Bowl is reportedly considering taking Penn State instead if Michigan is ultimately part of the playoff.
If that happens, Ohio State would be sent to the Orange Bowl. But if the Rose Bowl takes Ohio State again, that opens the door for an SEC team – likely Alabama (6) or Tennessee (7), which are each ranked ahead of Penn State – to find its way to Miami. Georgia would be another potential Orange Bowl opponent, but there’s a good chance the reigning national champ, undefeated and ranked No. 1 going into the weekend, remains in the playoff regardless of the outcome of its SEC title bout with LSU.
If Clemson doesn’t win the ACC championship…
Things get more complicated.
The ACC has nine bowl-eligible teams. There’s also Notre Dame, which has an agreement with the league that the Fighting Irish would be eligible for a conference tie-in as long as they’re within one game of any team eligible for that bowl slot. Notre Dame is 8-4, so that’s going to happen. But even with Notre Dame included, the ACC has more potential bowl tie-ins (11) than eligible teams (10), so it will fill all of its bowl slots.
Where everyone will end up isn’t as clear.
Remember, the Orange Bowl is the only automatic tie-in for the league, which sends its conference champion there in years like this one when that team isn’t part of the CFP. The conference works with the rest of its bowl affiliates to pick teams based on factors such as location, matchup intrigue and how recently a team has played in a particular bowl. Bowl games also prefer to stay away from regular-season rematches, so don’t expect to see Clemson playing Notre Dame or South Carolina again.
But the ACC does have a top tier of bowls it’s tied to after the Orange Bowl. Those are the Gator, Cheez-It, Mayo, Holiday, Sun, Pinstripe and Military bowls. And considering Clemson will finish with one of the two best overall records in the conference regardless of what happens this weekend, the Tigers will almost certainly land among this group.
The Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando seems like one of the least likely options, though, considering Clemson and many of its fans just made the trip there a year ago. The Gator Bowl in Jacksonville is a real possibility. It’s a bowl the Tigers haven’t played in since 2009, and they would draw an SEC opponent if they landed in this game.
But, for obvious reasons, Florida State, which finished the regular season with nine wins, will be in high demand for the top-tier bowls in its state. So will Notre Dame given its national brand, making for the possibility that the Gator and Cheez-It bowls skip over Clemson for those two teams.
Another possibility? The ReliaQuest Bowl, formerly known as the Outback Bowl, which will be an ACC vs. SEC matchup if a Big Ten team ends up being the ACC’s opponent in the Orange Bowl. It’s another Florida bowl that the Tigers have never played in, so don’t be surprised to see Clemson here if Ohio State goes to the Orange Bowl (assuming FSU or Notre Dame doesn’t land here either).
Should Clemson get past those three bowls, though, the Mayo Bowl might make the most sense. Formerly the Meineke Car Car and Belk bowls, it’s a game Clemson hasn’t played in since 2010. It’s also an ACC vs. SEC matchup that will be played back up the road in Charlotte, making for the easiest trip of any possible bowl destination.
It’s difficult to imagine Clemson not being scooped up by one of those bowls. But if somehow none of those end up being the landing spot, the remaining options are the Holiday, Sun, Military and Pinstripe bowls.
The Holiday Bowl, played in San Diego against a Pac-12 team, makes the least sense from a travel standpoint, but somebody from the ACC will have to make the trip. It was another team from the Carolinas last year (N.C. State) that made the cross-country trek before the game was eventually canceled because of COVID-19 issues.
The Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas) is another ACC vs. Pac-12 tilt, though the Pinstripe (New York) and Military (Annapolis, Maryland) bowls are more within the ACC’s geographical footprint. Clemson would draw a Big Ten opponent (Pinstripe) or a Group of Five opponent (Military) should it fall into either one of those games.
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