College football's postseason is in the midst of a seismic shift: Between the death of the BCS, the concerted revival of New Year's Day and especially the formal approval of a four-team playoff, the last six months have seen arguably the most radical change in any sport in decades. But as the old, death-defying bowls continue jockeying for position in the new order, we're also beginning to get a clearer picture of what isn't going to change, a list that now includes the ACC's ongoing relationship with the Orange Bowl. And with it, quite possibly, the Orange Bowl's ongoing slide into irrelevance.
That may sound a bit dramatic, especially considering the fact that good old Orange is in line to host four very relevant semifinal games as part of the playoff rotation over the life of the 12-year contract. Consider, though, that for the other eight of those twelve years it will be stuck with the ACC champ, and that it's been almost as long since the ACC champ even remotely resembled a legitimate national contender. The last team the league sent to the nominal BCS championship game was Florida State in the 2001 Orange Bowl; the only ACC champion in the meantime that would have had any hope of qualifying for a four-team playoff was Virginia Tech in 2007. The last six teams that have carried the ACC banner into big-money games have all marched in with an embarrassing loss or other glaring asterisk on their resumés, and limped out losers.
If only it was possible to chalk up the absence of an obvious overlord to healthy, dog-eat-dog depth among the rank-and-file. Alas: Since the collapse of Florida State's reign of terror over the rest of the league in 2001 – the end of a decade-long run at the top of the standings since the Seminoles' arrival in 1991 – the ACC is 1-11 in BCS games, and joins the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt as the only leagues that have failed to put a team in the top five of the final polls. Seven of the last eleven years, the ACC has failed to put a team in the top ten. Last year's champ, Clemson, finished outside of the top 20. So did the runner-up, Virginia Tech. The power void has yawned so wide for so long, it seems stuck.
It wasn't supposed to be that way, and with a 12-year deal, the Orange Bowl is doubling down on its original bet that the ACC is on the verge of shedding its reputation as a "basketball conference." It's the same bet the conference made on itself when it expanded to an even dozen teams in 2004, by poaching Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East: Eventually, the sleeping giant must awake. Between them, FSU and Miami alone can claim seven national championships over the last 35 years, more than any two teams in any conference, as can Clemson (1980) and Georgia Tech (1990) before the Seminoles embarked on their decade of destruction. Between FSU, Miami and Virginia Tech, there have been seven losing appearances in a nominal national championship game in the same span. When the Hurricanes and Hokies defected eight years ago, it was supposed to signal the ACC's arrival alongside the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10 as a perennial powerhouse. Why wouldn't the Orange Bowl, or any other bowl not located in Pasadena, Calif., leap at the opportunity?
Instead, the complete failure of any single team to emerge as a championship player – even for a single season – has threatened to reduce one of the proudest, most venerable bowls in the lineup to second-class status. Since 2005, only one Orange Bowl in the last seven has featured a matchup of two top-10 teams (No. 5 Virginia Tech vs. No. 8 Kansas in 2008). With the possible exception of Andrew Luck-led Stanford in 2011, none have featured a plausible national contender. It's been the lowest-rated BCS game five of the last six years; West Virginia's 70-33 obliteration of Clemson in January was the lowest-rated game in BCS history, and the most lopsided. It was the third consecutive ACC defeat in Miami by double digits.
As always, the smart money to end that trend is squarely behind the Seminoles, if only for lack of better options. Virginia Tech is as consistent as they come, but has rarely faced elite competition within the conference and even more rarely overcome it outside of the conference. (In 25 years under Frank Beamer, the Hokies still have just three wins over opponents that finished in the top ten, only one of them – over former Big East rival West Virginia in 2005 – coming in non-conference play.) Miami has been sucked into a vortex of mediocrity that only figures to get worse for the foreseeable future. Even in the process of winning the conference for the first time in 20 years, Clemson is still prone to quintessentially Clemson maneuvers like getting blown out by N.C. State in late November.
But who knows? Maybe the ACC's fortunes will turn and the league will begin supplying the Orange Bowl with at least half of the compelling, first-rate matchups it took for granted for the first 70 years of its existence. And maybe the bowl will look back in five years and wish it had wriggled out of this dead-end partnership when it had the chance.