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Pitt faces uphill battle against Clemson in ACC Championship

Pittsburgh v Miami Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

I’ll admit it.

As a fan, there’s some degree of ‘Happy to be here’ when I think about Pitt’s season and the upcoming ACC championship game against Clemson. I’m not sure the players feel that way (at least I hope they don’t) but as a fan with no real vested interest here, it’s kind of hard not to feel that way.

Pitt’s football team wasn’t expected to do much this season, in case you’ve forgotten. Many prognostications had them around the five-win or six-win plateau and, while many Pitt fans were more optimistic, the national expectations weren’t high. That was, of course, completely understandable. Pitt had a new quarterback, was coming off of five-win season, and lost its two best defenders from a secondary that was already not real good. Five wins seemed quite possible, particularly with a tough schedule that saw them face three non-conference teams in the Top 15.

But while Pitt didn’t pull off any major surprises, the difference this year was that they managed to win a bunch of jump balls, so to speak. Games against the likes of Syracuse, Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Wake Forest, and Virginia Tech all went the Panthers’ way when, in a typical year, you might otherwise expect more of a split there. Plus, safe to say, after another loss to North Carolina, a split there would have been welcomed.

Then, with the Division teams all floundering a bit, the Coastal Division was there for the taking and Pitt capitalized. I know that many people feel they should have done that and that it’s not terribly impressive. But this isn’t a Pitt team with a load of talent, either. And as we saw this weekend against Miami, there are some big flaws here.

So when you add all of that up, it’s hard to not feel, on some level, that it’s just great to be here with little expectations. Sure, we all hope the program gets better and improves. After all, the goal should not be to merely reach the title game, but win it. But as I said in the Miami recap comments, I’ve got no illusion on where this program is right now. They have plenty of work to do and expecting them to win in this spot is kind of hard to do.

Still, the opportunity is there for the taking.

Pitt has a chance to win a conference championship and that, regardless of its likelihood, is a very real possibility. The reason for that is because anything can happen in a one-game situation. We’ve even seen that play out between these two teams as Pitt shocked Clemson in 2016 on the road when the Tigers were undefeated and would go on to win the national championship.

No one expected the Panthers to keep that game close, let alone win it. But they did. The idea that Pitt has a 0% chance to win here should be made by only your most unintelligible armchair quarterback in a bar after a six-pack of Schlitz. The reality is that teams can and do have off days. And if you combine that with an opponent stepping up, you have a formula for an upset.

Now, even though you’re going to hear plenty about the 2016 game this week, using that as a barometer isn’t reasonable. That’s because Pitt’s 2016 team was superior to this one. That team sported several NFL players, including one at quarterback, one at running back, and a handful of others. I have little doubt that the 2016 iteration of the Panthers was better and, in a title game, especially, that would make this upset far bigger. But what we can say is that even this year’s team has shown the ability to play over their heads.

Pitt gave undefeated Notre Dame a run for their money on the road, leading most of the game before losing by only five. The Panthers as recently as a few weeks ago proved that the impossible might not really be impossible. But if Pitt is to win, they’ll have to slow down a very, very good Clemson team.

Clemson isn’t just undefeated, they’ve steamrolled nearly everyone they’ve played. The Tigers have beaten ten of their twelve opponents by at least 20 points and, in most cases, the result has been a lot worse — and not only against non-conference cupcakes, either. They defeated Wake Forest, 63-3. They bullied NC State, 41-7. They obliterated Florida State, 59-10. They ‘whatever word is worse than obliterated’ Louisville, 77-16. Losses for their opponents have been plentiful and they have been not particularly fun to watch if you’re a casual fan who just enjoys a competitive game.

Two times, though, the Tigers were tested. Like any team, they’ve proven beatable. They survived for a 28-26 win against Texas A&M only after the Aggies missed a two-point conversion at the end. A few weeks later after quarterback Trevor Lawrence was knocked out of the game, they managed only a 27-23 victory against Syracuse. Both of those contests came in lower-scoring affairs and if you’re a Pitt fan, that’s the best recipe for the Panthers here.

For the most part, however, Clemson has been very difficult for opposing teams. Offensively, they’re fifth in the nation, scoring nearly 45 points a game. Defensively, they’re arguably even better, ranking second giving up a mere 12.1 points per contest. If Pitt thought Miami’s No. 20 defense was a tough nut to crack this weekend, try facing a motivated Clemson defense while playing for a championship. The Tigers’ run defense is also third in the nation and that means, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett is going to have to make some plays out there, plain and simple.

And the odds are even on it being ugly. Clemson’s most recent ‘close’ game since beating Syracuse in September? A 20-point beatdown on the road at No. 20 Boston College. The idea that Pitt has to keep things close here is silly. Hardly anyone keeps it close against the Tigers and just because the Panthers are on a big stage hardly assures the game should not get out of hand.

In the end, that Clemson defense is why I have a hard time thinking Pitt will be able to hang with them. Defensively, the Tigers do not typically give up very much. Can I see a world where Pitt plays over its head defensively as they did against Notre Dame and keeps Clemson to a scoring output lower than expected? I guess? But even if the Panthers do that, they’re still likely to find scoring points themselves to be a difficult proposition. A Miami-esqe loss this weekend wouldn’t be too surprising and here’s the frightening thing — it will probably even indicate that Pitt played a half-decent game. That’s the problem they face.

For Pitt to come out on top, it’s going to take more than merely controlling the ball on offense and eating up clock against Clemson. It’s going to take big special teams play. Maybe a pick six. Perhaps a key injury. Turnovers. Pitt will need to generate big plays elsewhere because, even with a running game that has proven to be incredibly effective (before these last two weeks, anyway), it’s hard to see them gaining a ton of yards on offense.

In other words, hope, but don’t expect, friends.

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