What the Orange Bowl tells us about conferences’ automatic BCS bids

We’ve followed the Clemson Tigers this season, from their 8-0 start, through their late-season slippage, their return to their winning ways in the ACC championship, and now their embarrassing defeat last night in the Orange Bowl at the hands of West Virginia. The Tigers’ victories have come almost exclusively on the back of their high-flying offense. Like Grinnell “system” basketball, Clemson doesn’t much care how many points you score because they’re just going to score more. It’s a great approach as long as it lasts, and it definitely is thrilling to watch, but when it unravels, things can get ugly in a hurry.

That’s what happened last night. Even though the Clemson players were wearing their lucky uniforms (the aesthetic tempered somewhat by the mesh stomach vents), things unraveled and got ugly in a hurry. Pinpointing the moment of unraveling is pretty easy. With just under eleven minutes to go in the second quarter, trailing 21-17, the Tigers had the ball on the WV three. On first and goal, they nearly punched it in, but a defender stripped the ball before the runner went down and took it 99 yards in the other direction for a touchdown:

The game effectively was over at that point. Playing from behind, the Tigers never sniffed WV again, and the Mountaineers won by a final score of 70-33, although it easily could have been worse. Interestingly, and surprisingly in light of that score, the Clemson defense mostly played pretty well; rather, many of WV’s (early, outcome-determinative) points came off offensive turnovers.

The Big East has caught a lot of flack recently (we’re no exception), but the Tigers’ collapse last night caused some to question whether the ACC deserved its AQ status, including our own Bpbrady:

I don’t have any special interest in defending the ACC or the AQ-conference system generally. I think the latter’s days are numbered, and with the Big East set to add Boise State and San Diego State, we’re pretty deep into conference postmodernity anyway. If Brendan thinks that the ACC should be stripped of its AQ status because its champion got destroyed by the Big East’s co-champion, though, I’m not sure he’s prepared to accept all of the logical conclusions, especially as they might apply to his beloved Big Ten, which earned a 4-6 bowl record this year. Last year, his Wolverines lost the Gator Bowl to Mississippi State by a score of 52-14, a point differential worse than Clemson’s loss last night (and Michigan’s second touchdown barely happened).

Again, the purpose of this post is not to defend the BCS or the status of the AQ conferences. Rather, its purpose is to argue that if a conference is to be stripped of its AQ status, it shouldn’t be because its champion suffered a bad bowl loss; there are too many reasons why bowl games are so unlike any other game of the season. (Its purpose also is to lament the loss of the team this man coaches in a bowl week that featured a win by the man and the program he takes on in that clip. Or something.)

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