Pittsburgh did not hold up its end of the deal.
The Panthers were supposed to finish the regular season with one Atlantic Coast Conference loss. They were supposed to thump Miami. They were supposed to set up a Top 25 showdown in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday night in Charlotte against No. 2 Clemson.
Instead, one week after securing the ACC Coastal Division title with a 34-13 victory at Wake Forest, Pittsburgh suffered a 24-3 drubbing in Miami.
Clemson has aimed to perform its way above the rotten reputation of the ACC all year. Clemson completed an undefeated regular season, but the perception of the ACC softens that feat in the eyes of many detractors.
Syracuse is the only other ACC school in the Top 25 of the Amway USA TODAY Sports coaches poll and The Associated Press poll this week. Yet, the Orange’s most impressive nonconference victory was against Connecticut.
Pitt’s lone nonconference win was against Albany. The Panthers fell 51-6 to Penn State, 45-14 to Central Florida and 19-14 to Notre Dame. It also lost to North Carolina, whose only other victory this season was against Western Carolina.
Good luck to the ABC network, which must sell this broadcast to impartial viewers. Everyone from the Reedy River to the Allegheny expects Clemson to trample Pittsburgh. Additionally, Clemson’s candidacy for the College Football Playoff makes the ACC Championship Game feel even more like a foregone formality.
Clemson coaches and players must generate their own juice for this game. They will not find it in the Panthers. Nothing on this Pittsburgh squad poses a significant threat for Clemson. The Tigers, on paper, are better and deeper at every position.
Nevertheless, Clemson can reach back a couple of years to draw some motivation. Pittsburgh nearly derailed the Tigers’ run to the national championship in 2016. Pittsburgh is the last team to defeat Clemson in Death Valley.
Clemson’s seniors earned their 52nd career victory Saturday night against South Carolina. Avenging the loss to Pittsburgh would grant them the NCAA record for most wins by a senior class. It also would provide perfect closure in their final ACC game.
Clemson could also approach this contest as the final tune-up for the Playoff, especially after allowing more than 500 passing yards to South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley. Clemson’s defense can correct many of its miscues against Pitt and remove some of the residual anguish from that poor performance, while gearing up for the powers it may face in the Playoff.
“We all know what’s at stake, and the good news is we haven’t played our best game,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We haven’t even come close to playing our best game. We’ve got a lot we can continue to improve on, and we’ll do just that.”