Big wins and close losses have largely been the story of the 2021 college football season for both the Pittsburgh Panthers and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Coming off some dominating performances last weekend, the two programs will square off in Atlanta on Saturday afternoon as the conference slate ramps up to start October.
The Panthers (3-1) opened with a 44-point win against UMass followed by a seven-point road win at Tennessee. After a back-and-forth 44-41 loss to Western Michigan, their 77-7 rout of FCS opponent New Hampshire helped to right the ship and put the lone loss in the rearview mirror.
Georgia Tech (2-2, 1-1 ACC) is no stranger to such a theme, holding opponents in their two losses to a combined 36 points. The strong defense wasn't enough, as Northern Illinois squeaked out a 22-21 win to open the season and then-No. 6 Clemson notched a 14-8 win two weeks ago. The Yellow Jackets rebounded quite emphatically from each of those losses, however, with 45 points in wins against Kennesaw State and then-No. 21 North Carolina.
The Panthers hold a 10-5 lead in the all-time series against the Yellow Jackets, but matching that 45-point mark against Pittsburgh on Saturday would certainly be a positive goal for Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets doubled up the Panthers in 2014 with a 56-28 win, the only instance in which either of these squads has scored at least 45 points against the other.
Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network Extra
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
The Panthers tallied 92 combined points in their two wins to begin the year, nearly equaling that mark last Saturday with 77 more against New Hampshire. The potent offense has propelled Pittsburgh to the top of the ACC in both points and yards per game, posting 210 total points — which is tied for the FBS lead with Fresno State, who has played five games in 2021 while nearly all other teams have played four. The 52.5 points-per-game average trails only Ole Miss' 52.7 for the FBS lead, on the strength of an ACC-best 548 yards per game.
Though the Panthers' rushing attack hasn't been invisible, a high-flying passing game has been the primary driver for the Pittsburgh offense's prolific start to the season. Kenny Pickett leads the ACC with 15 touchdowns through the air, throwing more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (four) in Saturday's win over New Hampshire. Eight of 15 passing touchdowns have gone to Jordan Addison, with Addison's eight receiving scores not only pacing the ACC but also matching LSU's Kayshon Boutte and Fresno State's Jalen Cropper for the FBS lead entering Week 5.
That passing offense will face what is easily its toughest test to date when Georgia Tech takes the field on Saturday afternoon. Though the Yellow Jackets are middle-of-the-pack in the ACC in scoring defense and playmaking behind the line of scrimmage, they've allowed just under 170 yards passing per game, good enough for a top-25 mark in the FBS. But less than one passing yard allowed per game stands between Georgia Tech's 169.8 and conference leader NC State's 169.
When Georgia Tech Has the Ball
With an offense as multi-faceted as Georgia Tech's, a run-pass balance is often a key focal point — and balanced is a pretty accurate label for this year's group. The Yellow Jackets enter Week 5 having collected 383.2 yards per game, with 187 of those coming on the ground. In fact, of the 79 teams across the FBS averaging at least 380 total yards per game, only three teams — Buffalo (0.7 yards per game), Florida State (5.7), and Wisconsin (6.0) — have a smaller gap between their rushing and passing totals than Georgia Tech's 9.2 yards per game.
Quarterback Jeff Sims sustained a left arm injury in the season opener against Northern Illinois, which forced him to miss the Yellow Jackets' next two games. Playing just over a half of football against North Carolina as he entered shortly before halftime, Sims finished with 240 total yards (112 passing, career-high 128 rushing) and four total touchdowns, three of which came on the ground. On the infrequent instances when he elects to pass, look for Malachi Carter — who led all Yellow Jackets with 48 yards and hauled in Sims' lone passing touchdown against the Tar Heels — and Kyric McGowan (team-high three receiving touchdowns) to be his primary targets.
Making plays in the backfield is crucial against a run-heavy offense like Georgia Tech's, and Pittsburgh has excelled in that area so far in 2021. The Panthers rank second in the ACC and fifth in the FBS with four sacks per game, while their 7.5 TFLs per game is the fourth-highest rate in the conference and a top-25 mark nationally. It's also helpful that the production comes from a variety of sources, as four different Panthers have already collected at least two sacks. Habakkuk Baldonado leads the way with 3.5 sacks and five TFLs in four games, and his pairing with Phil Campbell III (three sacks) provides a menacing combination along the defensive line.
Pittsburgh's offense has proven very capable in the early going, entering with one of the nation's best overall offenses to begin the season. But the Panthers' defense will be key as Georgia Tech has mustered just 29 points combined in its two losses while scoring 45 points in each of its two wins. Speaking of defense, the Yellow Jackets will have their work cut out for them — no team has held Pittsburgh under 40 points so far in 2021, but the Yellow Jackets were the last to do so when these two teams met to close the 2020 season.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 41, Georgia Tech 24
Podcast: Complete Week 5 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.