After an 11-3 campaign in which Pitt won its first ACC championship and played in a New Year’s Six bowl game, the Associated Press placed Pitt at No. 13 in its final AP Top 25 poll of the 2021 season. The end-of-season top-15 ranking is Pitt’s first since 2009 as well as its highest end-of-season ranking since 1982.
This season, Pitt faced an uphill climb for respect from AP voters, who were slow to warm up to a team that went 6-5 in 2020. Needless to say, the Panthers began the season unranked, and from there, they needed a 5-1 run that included wins over Tennessee and Virginia Tech to break into the rankings.
Pitt’s 28-7 win over Virginia Tech on Oct. 16 earned it a No. 23 ranking the next day, and the team’s 27-17 win over Clemson the following week resulted in a six-spot bump up to No. 17. However, in response to Pitt’s 38-34 loss to Miami on Oct. 30, AP voters ushered the team out of the ranking before slipping Pitt back in at No. 25 after a 54-29 annihilation of Duke.
With losses to Western Michigan and Miami on its record, Pitt would find it even tougher than usual to convince AP voters of its legitimacy late in the season. After a dramatic 30-23 overtime win over North Carolina, Pitt would move up to No. 20. But the team went unrewarded after clinching the ACC Coastal with a 48-38 win over Virginia, and only after defeating Syracuse 31-14 did Pitt reclaim the No. 17 spot it held a month before.
Pitt’s 45-21 shellacking of Wake Forest in the ACC championship game, which was played just 83 miles away from Wake Forest’s campus, also did little to impress AP voters, as they only bumped Pitt up to No. 13 and shoehorned BYU in at No. 12 and Michigan State in at No. 11. BYU would go onto lose to UAB 31-28 in the Independence Bowl and drop to No. 19 in the final AP poll, and oddsmakers would dissent with AP voters’ estimation of Michigan State, as they named Pitt the favorite to defeat Michigan State in the Peach Bowl when both teams were at full strength.
Of course, the two teams would not play at full strength, with Pitt missing Kenny Pickett and others and Michigan State missing Kenneth Walker III, and Michigan State would win the Peach Bowl 31-21. And now, as a result, Michigan State will head into the offseason with a No. 9 ranking, and Pitt will remain at No. 13, no worse for wear in the national rankings than it was after its ACC championship victory.
With its No. 13 ranking, Pitt finishes the 2021 season as the highest ranked team in the ACC, narrowly edging out No. 14 Clemson and No. 15 Wake Forest. The only other ACC team to make the final AP poll is NC State, which came in at No. 20 in the poll after a 9-3 season.