After clinching the ACC Coastal Division crown last week with a win over Virginia, Pittsburgh's game against Syracuse this Saturday doesn't hold a whole lot of meaning to the Panthers. Win or lose, they will be going to Charlotte next week, and a victory there means a New Year's Six bowl will be in their holiday plans.
But this is a rivalry that goes back to 1916, through independence for both teams and then the Big East, to their current home in the ACC. As crossover rivals, they see each other every year, and victory matters to both sides.
With bowl eligibility hanging in the balance, the game does carry a little extra import for Syracuse. Since 2013, the Orange have played in just one bowl game, the 2018 Camping World Bowl. It's the difference of just one game in the standings, but to the Cuse, 6-6 is much different than 5-7.
The two schools have played 76 times since that first battle in 1916 and the ledger says the results favor Pittsburgh 41-31-3. Pitt has won three straight and 14 of the last 16 matchups.
No. 17 Pittsburgh at Syracuse
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 27 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Pittsburgh -13
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
This should be a lot of fun to watch. The potency of the Pitt offense is well known, as the Panthers are No. 2 in America behind Ohio State in total offense. More than likely, quarterback Kenny Pickett will find himself in New York City in a couple of weeks as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. That happens when you complete 67.1 percent of your passes for 3,857 yards and 36 touchdowns … with two games left to play. Wide receiver Jordan Addison has benefitted most, putting together his own All-American type season, but Pickett has a bevy of quality receivers at his disposal.
The running game has been hit or miss this season, but at least it's a threat, something it was not last season. Pitt's 159 rushing yards per game places it 11th in the ACC, but that is 40 yards per game more than each of the past two seasons, which is all they need considering what Pickett can do through the air. Israel Abanikanda is the team's leading rusher, but Vincent Davis led the way against Virginia and in other weeks it's been Rodney Hammond Jr. The threat of the run, coupled with Pickett's ascension to being one of the best quarterbacks in America, has made this Pitt offense electric.
Making this matchup really special, though, is the quality of the defense on the other side. The Orange rank third in the ACC in both total and passing defense, and they like to attack. With 36 sacks and 78 tackles for lost yardage, Syracuse is among the nation's best teams at creating negative plays. Cody Roscoe leads the way with 8.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for lost yardage, and he's not the only Orange defender that can get into the backfield. Interestingly, despite all the heat that the Cuse can bring, it is tied for last in America in creating turnovers (six). So look for Syracuse to try to disrupt Pickett's timing, but any turnover has to be considered a bonus.
When Syracuse Has the Ball
As much as Pickett may mean to the Pittsburgh offense, Sean Tucker may be even more valuable to Syracuse's unit. Tucker has 1,467 rushing yards this year, which is good for third nationally. The next highest total for a Cuse running back is 79 yards by Jarveon Howard. And Tucker's 18 receptions are second on the team. It doesn't matter what the opposing defense does or what they are good at, Tucker is getting the ball.
Part of the reason for his workload is that he is just that good. The other part is that Syracuse just can't throw the ball well. Their 147 yards passing per game puts the Orange at 124th nationally and last in the ACC. That in no way indicates that Garrett Shrader is an ineffective quarterback. His strengths, however, lie in his running ability, not his arm. On the season, Shrader has run for 14 touchdowns and has thrown for seven. So whether it's Tucker or Shrader, expect to see plenty of runs out of the Cuse once again.
And that's fine with Pittsburgh. Panther head coach Pat Narduzzi loves to put his corners in single coverage and crowd the line of scrimmage. If he knows the other team can't throw, eight-man fronts will be the order of the day. The only team in the ACC that allows fewer than 100 rushing yards per game is Pittsburgh, and all Panther eyes will be on Tucker and Shrader this week. Brandon Hill leads the team with 62 tackles this season, but this is a very deep defensive unit that has 17 players registering at least 20 tackles.
While motivation may be on the side of the Orange, the matchups favor the Panthers this week. Syracuse has a very strong defense, but Pickett and his troops will score points on anyone. Plus, the Pittsburgh defense feasts on one-dimensional teams like the Cuse. It will be a fun game to watch, and Dino Babers' guys will hang in as long as they can. But when it's over, Pittsburgh will have more points.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 34, Syracuse 21
Podcast: Week 13 Preview, Predictions, and Picks Against the Spread
– 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.