There are just two remaining Coastal Division teams that are unbeaten in the ACC, and they will do battle when the Pittsburgh Panthers venture to Virginia Tech this Saturday. OK, so they have both played just one conference game, but the winner will be alone in first place for at least one week.
Pittsburgh (4-1, 1-0 ACC) is certainly a Coastal team that thinks it should be in the race for the entire season. The Panthers have scored at least 40 points in each game and currently look like the hottest team in the division. Virginia Tech (3-2, 1-0), meanwhile, has to get over the heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame last Saturday and realize that the Pitt game is actually much more important in the grand scheme of things.
Virginia Tech leads the all-time series 11-9, but the Panthers drubbed the Hokies 47-14 in the Steel City last year.
Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Pittsburgh -5
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
As mentioned, this has been an explosive offense all season long. The Panthers lead the nation in scoring at 52.4 points per game. Admittedly, playing UMass and FCS member New Hampshire is a major factor in that scoring average, but Pitt also put up 93 combined points against their two Power 5 opponents. While the rushing offense, which was dreadful in 2020, has made a significant jump to the middle of the pack, this is still a passing team, and quarterback Kenny Pickett makes this unit go.
If you are looking for an under-the-radar Heisman contender, Pickett could be your man. The fifth-year senior is completing 72 percent of his passes and has a 19-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Wide receiver Jordan Addison has avoided the sophomore slump, and veteran Taysir Mack has been part of a deep supporting cast. Just as importantly, the offensive line that struggled for much of 2020 has improved markedly this season in both pass pro and the run game.
While Pittsburgh will most definitely attempt to play pitch and catch on Saturday, running the ball may also be a legitimate option against Virginia Tech. Notre Dame, who had averaged 81 yards per game on the ground coming in, ran for a season-best 173 yards in Blacksburg last weekend. Plus, after pressuring the quarterback early in the game, the Hokies pass rush waned as the game wore on. Still, with Amaré Barno and TyJuan Garbutt making a push up front and corner Jermaine Waller patrolling the back end, the Hokies are a tough group to pass on. One other item to note is that starting linebacker Dax Hollifield will miss the first half after a targeting call late in the Notre Dame contest.
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
Braxton Burmeister has been cleared to play this Saturday, and that is very good news for the Hokies. The junior quarterback injured his shoulder against Notre Dame and had to temporarily leave the game. When backup Connor Blumrick was also injured, Burmeister was forced back into action. With Blumrick expected to be out for a considerable amount of time, having a healthy Burmeister is imperative.
But even with Burmeister, this offense has some warts. Their 328 yards per game rank 116th in the nation, and there is a lack of identity on this side of the ball. The running game is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, and Burmeister, while solid, is not scaring many opponents with his downfield passing. So what is the answer? Finding a go-to running back from Raheem Blackshear, Jalen Holston, and Keshawn King is the first step, and hoping the offensive line can open some holes would be a big help. Burmeister is what he is, and without the help of a solid rushing attack, the offense will continue to bog down.
It will be tough to establish that ground game this week, however. Pittsburgh is second in the ACC in rush defense, and they held Georgia Tech to just 73 yards on 31 carries two weeks ago. When teams have been successful moving the ball against the Panthers, it is been primarily through the air. Western Michigan had 357 passing yards in their upset of Pitt, and Jeff Sims of Georgia Tech had 359 aerial yards in Pitt's most recent game. A Pat Narduzzi coached team always likes to bring pressure, and that is the case this year, but when they are not successful, it leaves the corners in a lot of single coverage. Burmeister and his receivers will have to exploit those matchups whether it is for bug chunk plays or receptions that just move the chains.
This is a troubling spot for Virginia Tech. In what is a huge Coastal Division clash, the Hokies are stumbling in — and it is not just the way they lost the Notre Dame game. The Hokies allowed Richmond to hang around a few weeks ago, and West Virginia has not won a game since defeating Tech on Sept. 18. And this Saturday they will be facing a Pittsburgh team that is feeling extremely upbeat after mauling Georgia Tech. The Hokies haven't shown that they can generate a lot of offense at any point this season, while the Panthers have been lighting up scoreboards all year. This week, attitude beats home field as Pittsburgh seizes control of the Coastal.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 38, Virginia Tech 24
Podcast: Week 7 Preview & Predictions + 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.