Pitt may be a decided underdog against No. 2 and undefeated Clemson on Saturday night in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game, but don’t try to sell that to the Tigers.
“Pitt definitely presents a big challenge for us,” Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “They’re a good team. There’s a reason they won their division. We’re going to have to bring it, be on our toes, be ready for anything.”
Wilkins and his senior teammates have proved up to the task more often than not during the last four years, compiling a school-record 52 victories against only four losses during that span.
A victory over Pitt would give Clemson its fourth consecutive ACC title — a first since the ACC adopted divisional play in 2005 — and help secure a fourth straight berth into the College Football Playoff.
“We’re excited about practice this week,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose team is 12-0 for the second time in three years. “We’re excited because it means it’s the postseason and we’re playing for a championship.”
Pitt (7-5) will be representing the ACC’s Coastal Division for the first time and will attempt to strike a long overdue blow for the division. The Atlantic Division champion has won the ACC title each of the last seven years.
Three of the Panthers’ losses came against ranked non-conference opponents, including a 19-14 loss at unbeaten Notre Dame, but Pitt flexed its muscle in ACC play, going 6-2.
Although a 26 1/2-point underdog, the Panthers can draw inspiration from their last meeting against the Tigers — a 43-42 victory at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium in the 10th game of the 2016 season.
Swinney remembers the 2016 defeat well, despite the fact that his team never lost again that season, going on to win the national championship.
“They just came in here and outplayed us in that game,” Swinney said. “We couldn’t really stop them. We were very fortunate, because if I remember correctly it seemed like everybody lost on that day. Had that not happened, we might’ve been out of the playoffs.
“Our seniors, their only home loss of their career was Pitt, so they’re excited to have a chance to play Pitt in their last ACC game.”
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi says his program has made great strides since that upset at Clemson.
“We’ve come a long way since we played them down there,” Narduzzi said. “I think our depth is better. Any time you can go beat one of the best in the country, it gives your kids the belief that what we’re doing is the right stuff. But the stars have to be aligned and you’ve got to do things right and have a little luck along the way.”
Now Narduzzi is counting on his team to recover quickly from a regular season-ending 24-3 loss at Miami.
“I’m not so sure some of our kids weren’t already looking forward to this game,” Narduzzi said. “It will be our first trip there. Clemson has obviously been there before. This will be nothing new to them. I think it’s going to be important for our football team to stay focused and locked into why we’re there, what our job is.”
Pitt’s primary job will be attempting to find some running room against a Clemson run defense that ranks among the national leaders. The Tigers’ front line features four players, including Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, who are projected first-round NFL Draft picks.
“Christian Wilkins — I can’t believe he’s still there,” Narduzzi said.
Clemson boasts one of the top run defenses in the nation. The Tigers allow a nation-leading 2.23 yards per carry and 84.8 yards per game, which ranks second best in the FBS.
The Panthers will try create room behind a veteran offensive line for running backs Qadree Ollison, who has 1,185 yards this season, and Darrin Hall, who has 935 yards.
Clemson has a well-balanced offense that averages 283 yards through the air and 256 yards on the ground. Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence has shined since moving into a starting role in the season’s fifth game, passing for 2,488 yards and an ACC-leading 22 touchdowns while sophomore running back Travis Etienne tops all league rushers with 1,307 yards and 19 touchdowns.
“He’s done an unbelievable job,” Narduzzi said of Lawrence. “Dabo named him the starter a while ago, and rightfully so.”