The Clemson Tigers and the Pittsburgh Panthers will meet in the Dr. Pepper ACC Championship game in a rematch of the Tigers’ only loss from their national championship season in 2016. Clemson comes in at 12-0, while the Panthers enter the game with a 7-5 record. The Tigers are coming off of a 21-point win over their in-state rivals for the fifth consecutive year, after which Head Coach Dabo Swinney called out fans for complaining about “not winning by enough.”
The Pitt Panthers have the opposite problem and are recovering from a 21- point thrashing at the hands of division foe, Miami. Pitt started the year 3-4 but has since then reeled off four in a row before losing a week ago. Three of those losses came against ranked teams in UCF, Notre Dame and Penn State.
The Panthers rely on their rushing attack to win games, by averaging 233 yards per game on the ground. The last three losses for Pitt have come in games in which they rushed for less than 130 yards. Running back Qadree Ollison leads the team with 1,134 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, but he will be tasked with running against the vaunted Tiger defense. The offense is ranked 51st in the nation overall, but 12th in rushing and 87th in passing.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett has not thrown an interception in six straight games, however, he is only averaging 158 passing yards per game. The Panthers need to establish the running game early because Pickett is a true game manager and if he is forced to win the game with his arm, it might be too much to ask from the Panthers.
The Clemson secondary was torn apart by South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley last week to the tune of 510 yards, although they likely won’t have to worry about that against the Panthers. It is well known that Clemson’s defensive strength is their front seven which matches up well with Pittsburgh’s strengths on offense. Clemson ranks second in the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 84 yards per game, but the Panthers have dominated this defense on the ground before. In 2016, the Panthers used the “shovel pass” to catch Clemson off guard. Pitt ran for 160 yards but “threw” for over 300. The key for the Clemson defense is to stop the run and fix the alignment issues that haunted them last week in the passing game.
The Pittsburgh defense will be one of the stronger units the Tigers have faced this year. The Panthers give up about 400 yards per game, 225 of those through the air. This could spell doom for Pitt as Clemson is throwing for 282 yards a game. Good offenses have torched the Panthers, but they held a potential playoff team, Notre Dame, to only 19 points and 80 yards rushing and intercepted quarterback Ian Book two times.
Pittsburgh is lacking in the experience category. This will be the fourth consecutive ACC championship appearance for Clemson, but the first ever appearance for Pitt. Clemson has a load of five-star recruits, while Pitt has a load of three-stars that fit well in their system. While Clemson has the talent and experience, Pitt has proved that they can beat a more talented team. In order to win, they will need to use the same formula as they did in 2016 to beat Clemson. Pittsburgh will need to control time of possession, score touchdowns in the red zone, force Clemson to stay behind the chains and win the turnover battle. The spread on this game is 26 points and it would not be surprising to see the Panthers cover.
Game time is set for 8 p.m. tomorrow night at Bank of America Stadium.