If you go by the AFCA Coaches Poll, Saturday afternoon's matchup at Heinz Field will be a Top 25 matchup when No. 23 Pittsburgh hosts No. 24 Clemson. While it hasn't been pretty, Clemson has won two straight after starting the year 2-2. So even though a College Football Playoff spot is seemingly out of reach, a New Year's Six bowl invite is still in play.
A major bowl also is the goal for Pat Narduzzi's Panthers. After stumbling at home to Western Michigan, Pitt was very impressive in dismantling its next three opponents. The complete domination of Virginia Tech last Saturday was perhaps the Panthers' best team effort of the season.
Clemson and Pittsburgh have split their four previous meetings, with the Panthers winning the 1977 Gator Bowl and forging a memorable upset in 2016, while the Tigers put together dominant victories in 2018 and 2020. This will be the first time Clemson has ever gone to Pittsburgh.
Clemson at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Pittsburgh -3
When Clemson Has the Ball
Clemson may have won at Syracuse last Friday night, but it was another game where the offense was bogged down. A week after rushing for 231 yards against Boston College, the Tigers were held to just 134 yards on 35 carries by the Orange. Kobe Pace has stepped forward as the primary ball carrier with freshman Will Shipley out and had 76 yards on 14 rushes last week. The ground game needs to get on track because big plays have been hard to find in the passing game.
D.J. Uiagalelei's 62 percent completion rate last week was only eclipsed by his 72 percent showing against Georgia Tech. But in both cases, nothing was happening downfield. Against the Jackets, Uiagalelei averaged just five yards per attempt, and he was only a fraction better last Friday. It seems like the perfect storm when it comes to this problem. The line has not given the passer much time, the receivers haven't created much separation, and Uiagalelei has not been accurate.
There are two things about the Pittsburgh defense that all coaches love. First, the Panthers are improving dramatically. The same group that allowed 44 points to Western Michigan shut down Virginia Tech this past weekend. Also, the defense gets contributions from everyone on this side of the ball. SirVocea Dennis leads the team with 35 tackles, but 16 players have made at least 10 stops on the season. They also have 11 players with multiple tackles for lost yardage. Pittsburgh will continue to score points, but how far this team goes will be determined by the strides it continues to make on defense.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
Without question, the best recent development for this offense has been the emergence of the running game. The 252 yards against FCS New Hampshire could easily be shrugged off, but the combined 389 yards in the Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech games cannot be dismissed. Israel Abanikanda and Vincent Davis have split carries, though Abanikanda has put up the bigger numbers. The sophomore had his first career 100-yard game last Saturday as he rushed for 140 in the Virginia Tech win.
If the running game continues to improve, watch out because Kenny Pickett still knows how to chuck the ball around. Pickett has completed just under 70 percent of his throws at 9.4 yards per attempt with 21 touchdowns and a single interception. He had his least productive game of the year last week, but he was still highly effective, didn't make mistakes, and had the pleasure of watching Abanikanda run. Also, kudos to the big guys up front. The O-line has protected well over the course of the year, and they have a lot to do with the progress in the running game.
With all that on the table for Pittsburgh, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables will have to prioritize what he wants to take away. Despite what has occurred in recent weeks, Pitt is still fueled by Pickett's arm, so it will be interesting to see how Clemson defends the Pitt quarterback. Xavier Thomas is having a bounce-back season, and Myles Murphy is still a force, so getting pressure without sending defenders from the second or third level is a possibility. But Venables likes to mix things up, so look for unique packages to get guys in Pickett's face.
Early-season struggles are oftentimes overblown. A couple of off weeks to start the season is not necessarily an indicator of what will happen the rest of the season. But Clemson has now played six games and we are still waiting for the offense to do something. At this point, you have to come to the conclusion that this is who the Tigers are offensively. With Pittsburgh's defense getting better by the week, the question becomes, can the Clemson defense hold the Panthers down enough to win this game? I don't think so. I'm not sure how well Pitt will run on the Tigers' front, but Pickett will move the ball despite Venables' best efforts. With an electric home crowd spurring them on, the Panthers will take another step toward the ACC Coastal crown with a win over Clemson.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Clemson 17
Podcast: Previewing Week 8 + CFB Expansion + Washington State Coaching Search
— 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.