It's Championship Weekend and your Pitt Panthers are ready to head down to Charlotte to face the hated Syracuse Orange in the ACC Championship Game for the right to represent the ACC in the Orange Bowl!
What...Pitt isn't in the ACC Championship Game? Well, we're at least in the ACC, right?
We're still in the Big East? But next season, though - ACC, right?
2014? Well, there must be major bowl implications on the line right? BCS aspirations for both squads?
Both teams are 5-6? Well, this should be interesting.
So if you couldn't tell, this game just screams excitement. Pitt and Syracuse meet at noon at Heinz Field in the final regular season game for both teams and the last game of the season for the loser. The winner will at least be bowl eligible, but whether they get invited to a bowl is another question all together.
This season has obviously been a disappointment for Pitt. Yes there was a coaching change, but to be fighting simply for bowl eligibility on the last weekend of the season (with eight home games no less) was something I don't think many fans saw when Pitt first lined up against Buffalo at the beginning of September. But, as we saw against West Virginia, inconsistency and poor quarterback play have led Pitt to a 5-6 record.
The situation is similar for Syracuse. After manhandling West Virginia in the middle of October, the Orange have lost four straight games, including to South Florida (whose only conference win of the season came at the expense of the Orange, by the way). Name a reason why a team could lose a game and Syracuse has done all of them in this four game losing streak. Turnovers, penalties, bad offense/defense, the inability to convert on 3rd down, the inability to make a stop on 3rd down ... they're all there.
The offense starts with the quarterback Ryan Nassib (from my hometown of West Chester, PA, no less), who in the past two games has only completed 50% of his passes. But don't let that stat get you thinking that Nassib is a bad quarterback. Statistically, he's actually not that bad. He's completing 62% of his passes for just under 2500 yards and has thrown for 21 TDs against only seven picks. Tino, by comparison has thrown at a slightly higher completion percentage (63%), but has only nine TDs and nine inteceptions. In the passing game, there are three names to keep an eye on. Receivers Alec Lemon and Van Chew and tight end Nick Provo. They are the three leaders in receiving yards for Syracuse and will be likely targets on the majority of Nassib's passes. Provo is a Dorin Dickerson-type tight end who is great at catching the ball and could be a match-up nightmare for Pitt's linebackers.
Where the Orange have been struggling recently is in the ground game. They managed to get it going against Cincinnati, rushing for 170 yards, but in the three games prior, they only managed to crack 100 once. They also only managed 108 yards against a South Florida team that, in case you forgot, gave up more than 200 yards to Ray Graham. The feature back is Antwon Bailey, a senior who is only two yards away from rushing over 1000 yards in his final season for the Orange. Outside of Bailey, though, Syracuse doesn't have another player that has rushed for over 100 yards, so Pitt should look to shut him down.
For Pitt to exploit the Syracuse defense, fortunately the team doesn't need to involve the passing game. The Orange have allowed over 180 yards on the ground in the past three games. If Zach Brown is healthy, Pitt may be able to have a big day running the ball. Should Pitt have to move the ball through the air, though, it's nice to know that Syracuse is 99th in pass defense, allowing 253 yards a game.
Of course it wouldn't be a Pitt preview if I didn't throw in something about the offensive line. I won't go into last week's sack numbers for this line (let's just say they were bad), but the line has to play better...or does Tino have to get the ball out sooner? Whatever the reason, Syracuse does a fairly decent job of getting to the QB and tackling opponents for a loss. So, I'm going to say this once now (and at least a dozen times on Saturday)...THROW THE DAMN BALL AWAY, TINO! You see Chandler Jones or Dyshawn Davis in front of you, you throw that ball straight to the sidelines. Jones and Davis lead the Orange in sacks and you can bet, especially against this line, they will be adding to their season totals. Davis, as seen against Rutgers, can really hit. Watch out for Mikhail Marinovich, Marquis Spruill, and Cameron Lynch as well. All 5 lie within Syracuse's front 7 and can make a living in Pitt's backfield if the line and/or Tino can't stop them. The secondary has a great player in Phillip Thomas, who has six interceptions this season, but he is out due to injury so Pitt catches a break there. Replacing him in the starting lineup will be Ri'Shard Anderson. Other starters include Kevyn Scott, Shamarko Thomas, and Keon Lyn.
Even in the dark times of the Dave Wannstedt era, there was also one constant. Pitt will beat Syracuse. You name a sport, Pitt probably has owned Syracuse in it recently. The Panthers simply beat the Orange every time, including last year's whipping up at the Carrier Dome where Tino had one of, if not his best, game as Pitt's QB. Does that mean Pitt wins on Saturday? No, and in fact because I wrote this, Pitt will probably come out flat to start and could very well lose. But with bowl hopes on the line, combined with the fact that Pitt simply doesn't lose to Syracuse, I'm getting the feeling that Pitt will be playing in St. Petersburg in a few weeks.