Tigers aim for fourth straight ACC title when they take on the Panthers in Charlotte
Clemson is one win away from another College Football Playoff appearance and on paper Pittsburgh doesn’t seem like much of a challenge. The Panthers are 7-5 and are coming off an ugly 24-3 loss to Miami, a game in which the Pitt offense generated just 200 yards on the day. While the Hurricanes boast a high-level defense, the Clemson unit Pittsburgh will face this week is at least as good. And offensively, there’s no comparison between the Tigers and the Hurricanes.
But in 2016, 5-4 Pittsburgh stumbled into Clemson Memorial Stadium fresh off a 23-point loss to those Hurricanes and somehow managed to squeeze out a 43-42 win over the unbeaten and third-ranked Tigers. Clemson went on to win the national title that year, but many of the current Tigers were on that team and remember that day.
It is possible that could Clemson could survive a loss and still make the playoff. But based on the fact that Clemson is playing a five-loss team, a defeat would probably send the Tigers to one of the New Year’s Six bowls. That has to be the mindset for Dabo Sinney and his Tigers. Plus, the ACC title thing counts a little bit, too.
Despite being conference brethren for six years, the two schools have only played twice in history. Pittsburgh won the game in 2016 and also a 1977 meeting in the Gator Bowl.
ACC Championship Game: Clemson vs. Pitt
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Clemson -26.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The return of Clemson’s coverage problems
Early in the season, the Tigers' vaunted defense was having trouble stopping aerial attacks. In week two, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond opened eyes by throwing for 430 yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers. Two weeks later, Syracuse’s Eric Dungey passed for 250 yards in the Orange's near-upset in Death Valley. Then the Tigers put teams on lock down, including holding the top passing team in the ACC — Ryan Finley and NC State — to 126 yards below their season average. All seemed fixed until Jake Bentley of South Carolina threw for 510 yards and five touchdowns against Clemson this past weekend. While the final score wasn’t close, Bentley was having success right from the start. If Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett starts making plays by throwing the ball this weekend, you know there’s something up with Clemson’s coverage, as the Panthers rank 120th nationally in passing yards per game.
2. Pittsburgh running game
If Darrin Hall has 65 rushing yards on Saturday night, Pitt will have two 1,000-yard rushers entering the bowl season. Qadree Ollison is already at 1,134 and the two Panthers backs have taken turns lighting up opposing defenses. Except for last week, though, when Miami held Pittsburgh to just 69 yards on 38 carries. Combined with Pickett’s continued struggles creating offense through the air, the Miami defense completely shut down Pitt. The only way the Panthers have had offensive success this season is by establishing their running game and this Clemson defense is better than Miami at stopping the run. It will fall on the Pittsburgh offensive line to open up holes which is always a challenge when facing Clemson’s All-World defensive line.
3. Trevor Lawrence and his receivers
Bentley wasn’t the only quarterback firing on all cylinders in the Palmetto Bowl. The Clemson freshman completed 27 of 36 pass attempts for 393 yards. Lawrence spread the wealth very well, connecting with five different receivers on at least three occasions. Former five-star recruit Tee Higgins had perhaps the best game of his career, catching six passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi puts a lot of faith in his corners, often leaving them alone in man-to-man coverage in order to put pressure on the quarterback. If the Clemson offensive line gives Lawrence time in the pocket, Higgins and his cohorts should be able to make plays downfield. No team in the ACC hits on more big plays than Clemson and Pittsburgh will need its secondary to play its best game.
This really is a bad matchup for Pittsburgh. All year long, the Panthers have been a team that has relied on its offensive line and the running game. Quarterback Kenny Pickett’s efficiency numbers are okay, but they just don’t making many big plays in the passing game. If there is a vulnerability to the Clemson defense, it’s their pass defense and it doesn’t appear that Pitt has the capability of exploiting the Tigers secondary. They are going to have to run the ball with Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison and that’s a tough chore against this Clemson defense.
Defensively, the Panthers are going to have to force the issue on Lawrence because Clemson’s receivers can make plays. Throw in a little Travis Etienne against Pittsburgh’s 80th-ranked run defense and the Panthers could be in a ton of trouble. Yes, Pittsburgh pulled off the huge upset in 2016. No, the Panthers won’t do it this year. The Tigers will roll and earn one of the top two spots in the College Football Playoff.
Prediction: Clemson 38, Pittsburgh 13
— 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.