Weekend games will shape Pitt's bowl plans

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Pitt’s regular season ended a week ago in a disappointing 41-31 loss against Miami, but the games taking place this weekend will have a significant impact on the Panthers’ holiday travel plans.

With six regular-season wins, the Panthers are eligible for a bowl game for the sixth consecutive season. They almost certainly will be selected for one — though there’s a small chance they will not — but the destination is still very much up in the air.

“It’s still so fluid,” athletic director Steve Pederson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Thursday. “Part of it is there are a lot of meaningful games this weekend. There’s games that impact possible at-large spots in bowl games. There’s games that impact BCS selection.”

The “at-large” bids Pederson refers to are spots vacated by conferences that don’t have enough bowl-eligible teams to satisfy all of their contractual tie-ins. That’s not a problem with the ACC, which has 11 eligible teams for eight bowl spots. The remaining teams, one of which is likely to be Pitt, will have to find vacant at-large spots.

This weekend’s games, though, could shake that up. Clemson appears to be on the cusp of a Bowl Championship Series at-large spot. If anything happens this weekend that shakes up the status quo — mostly either Duke or Michigan State pulling upsets and winning their respective conference championships — the Tigers could be bumped out of the BCS lineup and cause a chain reaction that knocks out one more ACC team from the conference’s bowl tie-ins.

Even as things stand, it seems unlikely that Pitt will get one of the ACC’s bowl spots. The league has a rule that bowls selecting may not reach more than one win down in conference standings. For example, at 3-5, Pitt could be picked ahead of any 4-4 teams, but not any 5-3 teams.

Because of this rule, the Panthers can be selected no higher than seventh in the bowl selection, and geographic placements of other teams (for instance, North Carolina going to the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C.) make it likely that they will be searching for a non-ACC bowl spot.

The final ACC pick is the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md., but executive director Steve Beck told The Washington Post this week that if faced with the likely choice between Pitt, Maryland and Syracuse, the bowl likely would go with the Terrapins.

Most projections have the Panthers going to the Little Caesar’s Bowl Dec. 26 in Detroit. The bowl will not be able to fill its Big Ten spot, and executive director Ken Hoffman said he expects Pitt and Syracuse to be the teams still available after the ACC’s selection process. In addition to those schools, the bowl also is keeping an eye on Oregon State, Washington State, UNLV and Western Kentucky.

“Clearly, the ACC teams are of high interest,” Hoffman said. “The Pac-12 teams, while they’re members of an [BCS] conference, are more difficult to select because of the distance.”

Another option could be the Heart of Dallas Bowl Jan. 1 in Dallas. If the Big Ten gets two teams in the BCS — a likely scenario if Ohio State beats Michigan State in the conference title game (Ohio State would play for national championship and Michigan State would go to Rose Bowl) — it would not be able to fill its Big Ten slot.

Pederson confirmed that he is working with the ACC to find an at-large spot in one of these other bowls if the Panthers are left out of the league’s slate. Even though it has caused some additional headaches, Pederson said he was happy to be part of a league with a record 11 bowl-eligible teams.

“That’s great for us,” he said. “It’s terrific for the league, but now our hope is that we can find a home for everybody.”

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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