When the Panthers first joined the ACC in 2013, the conference was coming off another bad football season. The league was swept by the SEC during Rivalry Week, founding member Maryland announced it was defecting to the Big Ten, and rumors of more defections were rampant.
Before the ACC could officially welcome Pitt and Syracuse, things were already starting to look up. ACC teams swept the top four conference bowls. Louisville was pegged to replace Maryland, which proved to be a slight upgrade on the gridiron. All 15 member schools signed a Grant-of-Rights contract. Life was good in Pitt’s new athletic home.
There have been some great moments since then, too. From the first ever ACC game at sold-out Heinz Field, featuring the eventual national champion Florida State Seminoles, to the victory over a ranked Notre Dame team - another sell-out for the Panthers - later that same year, Panther football fit right in.
Still, something has been missing these past four and a half seasons: respect. The prevailing opinion was that the ACC was a one-division conference, with all of the football power in the Atlantic.
Pitt wins over Boston College (2014) and Syracuse (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016) were written off as meaningless. Wins over Louisville (2015) and eventual national champs, Clemson (2016) were considered flukes. The reputation of the Coastal division actually hurt teams like the Panthers.
However, it appears the ACC has finally found balance in 2017. Florida State and Louisville have declined, leaving Clemson and NC State atop the Atlantic division. Meanwhile, with the return of Miami and Virginia Tech to the top 15 and the national spotlight, all of a sudden the Coastal division is getting the respect it deserves, too.
Yes, Pitt still needs three more wins to become bowl-eligible, and while the next two games appear very winnable, those last two figure to be against top 25 (or higher) teams. That means Pitt will probably finish the regular season with five nationally-ranked opponents, three of them at home, and not a Clemson or a Florida State in sight. It's a tough road to travel (and don’t get me started about the challenge of playing in the new-look ACC for basketball!), but really, would you rather have it any other way?