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ACC Championship Prediction and Preview: Pittsburgh vs. Wake Forest

ACC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Panthers, Demon Deacons meet in Charlotte for ACC title and New Year's Six bowl bid

Coming into the season, very few analysts had Wake Forest and Pittsburgh as contenders in their respective ACC divisions. Clemson was the obvious choice in the Atlantic while North Carolina and Miami were expected to battle it out in the Coastal. But lo and behold, here we are with the Demon Deacons (10-2, 7-1 ACC) and the Panthers (10-2, 7-1) set to wage war in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Saturday night with an ACC title and a New Year's Six bowl bid on the line.

Experience plays a large part in why both teams have made it to this point. That is especially true of Wake Forest, who returned as much production from 2020 as any team in America. Kenneth Walker III obviously had a huge season with Michigan State, but he was not the Deacs' leading rusher in 2020, and the big loss coming into the fall was star end Boogie Basham.

The Panthers had to replace more key parts, but they had plenty of experience at the game's most important position and in the receiving corps. What made Pittsburgh really explode this year was the transition from good to great by many of their key contributors, especially the guy chucking the ball around.

If you remove the fact that there will be no College Football Playoff bids on the line, this could be one of the more entertaining games of Championship Saturday. Both teams rank in the top five in scoring offense, and, despite being in the same conference, there's a newness to the matchup. Wake and Pitt have only played once, in 2018 when the Panthers won in Winston-Salem by the score of 34-13.

ACC Championship Game: No. 15 Pittsburgh vs. No. 16 Wake Forest

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
Spread: Pittsburgh -3

When Pittsburgh Has the Ball

Offensively, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh are very similar. Both squads are decent at running the football, rely heavily on the passing game, and go very, very fast. And they both have superstar quarterbacks.

The rise of Kenny Pickett has been one of the great stories in college football this fall. Up until this season, Pickett had had a nice career and was considered an effective game manager. But over the past three months, he has transformed into not only a possible Heisman finalist, but someone that could actually seriously contend for the award with a big game on Saturday. Yes, he has 40 touchdowns and more than 4,000 passing yards. That helps. But his leadership has lifted this entire team to the point where they may go to their first major bowl since 2004.

Like Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, Pickett has plenty of options in the passing game, but sophomore Jordan Addison is clearly the No. 1 receiver on the team. With 85 catches for 1,353 yards and 17 touchdowns, Addison is one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation's top receiver. While the Panthers don't have a primary No. 2 as Wake does, they have five other guys that have caught at least 20 passes, including Jared Wayne, who hauled in 43. The duels on this side of the ball should be fun as well considering that Wake Forest has a solid pass defense. Rover Traveon Redd has three interceptions on the year while corners Caelen Carson and Ja'Sir Taylor can make plays on the ball. Plus, there is safety Nick Anderson, who always seems to be in the right place at the right time.

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Stopping the run has been the big bugaboo for the Demon Deacons. They are 118th in America in this department, yielding 210 rushing yards per game. Pittsburgh has not been a great running team this season, but they have been able to gash some opponents that had subpar run defenses. Much like Wake, Pittsburgh splits up the carries and they will go with the hot hand between Rodney Hammond Jr., Israel Abanikanda, and Vincent Davis. Getting something on the ground will make Pickett that much dangerous.

One huge strength for the Wake defense is that they have athletes that can make plays behind the line of scrimmage, especially Rondell Bothroyd and Luke Masterson, two in the front seven that have combined for 25.5 tackles for lost yardage. As a result of this pressure, the Deacs have forced 14 fumbles and intercepted 13 passes. Their 27 turnovers created ranks fourth in the nation and combined with just 16 giveaways by the offense puts Wake at No. 6 in the country with a plus-11 turnover margin. Pittsburgh is a plus-three, but they do have 14 turnovers on the season.

When Wake Forest Has the Ball

Watch for the battles outside. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi generally brings a lot of pressure, and that means leaving his corners on an island in many situations. Against Wake Forest, that will be a challenge for the Panther defensive backs. Wake wideouts Jaquarii Roberson and A.T. Perry form among the best pass-catching duos in America and will put pressure on anyone trying to cover them, especially straight up. Pitt cornerbacks Damarri Mathis, A.J. Woods, and Marquis Williams will have to be on top of their games on Saturday night.

Of course, Wake Forest has a great trigger man that can get the receivers the ball. Hartman had a big year, completing 60 percent of his throws for 3,711 yards with 34 touchdowns. Tempo is at the heart of the Demon Deacons' game, and Hartman is adept at running head coach Dave Clawson's hurry-up offense. One thing to watch, though, is that no one in the ACC threw more interceptions than Hartman. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh picked off 11 passes this season, so those corners, along with safeties Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett, know how to attack the football.

Because the Deacs put the ball in the air as much as they do, there are more sack opportunities. Still, Clawson surely would have liked to have seen fewer than the 28 that the team allowed. And here comes Pitt with Narduzzi's intense, pressure scheme. The Panthers are tops in the conference and No. 2 in America with 46 sacks, led by Habakkuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey, who have combined for 15 themselves. RPOs play a big part in Wake's passing game and Clemson disrupted their flow with constant pressure that resulted in seven sacks. Can Pittsburgh do the same?

Furthermore, the Pittsburgh front seven has also led the charge for the ACC's top rush defense. Christian Beal-Smith and Christian Turner will not get all-league consideration, but both are solid runners that provide just enough balance for the Wake Forest offense. Pitt will be aiming to shut that aspect down and force Hartman and his receivers to win the game on their own. The members of the Wake offensive line have played a lot of football and faced many challenges and this will be another big one.

Final Analysis

With these two quarterbacks and the multitude of talented receivers that will be on the field, points should be plentiful. This game will be decided by the defense that can make the most plays and much of that could be the result of turnovers. Wake Forest has flourished this season because it has been able to force opponents into making mistakes while Pittsburgh's defensive pressure can create problems. The two offenses look so much alike, but the defenses do not. Pittsburgh has to limit big chunk plays, but assuming the Panthers are successful, their defensive front can do many of the things that Clemson did to Wake a few weeks ago. Among Pickett's greatest strengths is that he does not often give the ball away. In a shootout, the Panthers come up with a couple more defensive stops and win the ACC title.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 45, Wake Forest 34

Podcast: Championship Weekend Preview and Predictions 

 Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.