The Tigers won at Syracuse and as a fanbase, we will take it. Are we happy? Absolutely not. But we will take it. This is a vintage ACC season, which means everything is stupid, no team is to be trusted and the Duke Blue Devils are awful. A few teams have risen out of that muck to have their best starts in years, with Wake Forest and Pittsburgh leading their respective divisions in the ACC.
Unlike Wake Forest, Pittsburgh has done it without resorting to open fraud, boasting a Heisman candidate on offense and one of the better defenses in the country on the other side of the ball. Seventh-year head coach Pat Narduzzi is one win from matching his total from last season. These are exciting times at Heinz Field, few would have thought that a New Years Six Bowl was a possibility when the team declined to go bowling as a six-win team last year.
Pitt has talent at the skill positions, experience up front, and a fourth-year starting QB in Kenny Pickett (#8) putting the pieces together. The end result has been one of the best statistical offenses in the Panthers' history. Pitt currently ranks fifth in the country at scoring offense with a blistering 42.6 points per game. That’s a slight problem for a Clemson team averaging barely over two touchdowns per game.
We should acknowledge here that the Panthers have not exactly faced the ’85 Bears on a weekly basis. We should also acknowledge that all teams can do is play the schedule in front of them. I know that Pitt has a loss to Western Michigan - I can’t explain that away and I won’t try to, but the Panthers' offense has shown up to play every single week this season.
At the same time, we must state the obvious: that Clemson has a more talented roster than Pittsburgh and it’s not particularly close. According to the 247 composite, this is the fourth-best roster in the country going against the 36th. Stars suggest the Tigers in a rout, production favors the Panthers comfortably.
Neither Vegas nor Bristol seem to know what to make of this game. Bill Connelly’s SP+ projections have Clemson favored by 1.5 points and gives the Tigers a 54% chance of winning overall. Vegas has Pittsburgh favored to win by a field goal. Bright minds have worked very hard at figuring out how to predict football games for quite some time, and yet the best they have for this game appears to be a shrug and “I dunno.”
The Panthers' offense isn’t particularly unique schematically. Mark Whipple, a journeyman coach with some sensational resume puffery in his school bio, and Pat Narduzzi, a former defensive coordinator, did not sit down in the offseason and put together something special in the lab.
The Panthers run inside zone and outside zone, power, counter, and draw out of 10, 11, and 12 personnel. They try to complement this with play-action passing, NFL drop-back concepts, and using the tight ends and running backs to create mismatches in the passing game. It would not have been new in the NFL in 2004, and it’s not new in the ACC now. The Panthers score a lot of points with one of the oldest formulas around: an elite quarterback throwing the ball to a strong collection of skill players.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line is experienced, which correlates but does not necessarily cause an offensive line to play well. Every starter besides the right guard is either a senior or has already graduated college. Does that experience translate to production? Absolutely not. Pittsburgh’s offensive line struggles to open holes in the running game and makes mistakes in blitz pickup that are inexcusable for teams this experienced.
The starting running back job has existed in a state of limbo between (the better) Israel Abinikanda (#2) and (the more experienced) Vincent Davis (#22) since at least this spring. It’s a saga that involves co-starting, injuries, Spirit Airlines, Abinikanda being less than useless as a pass blocker, and Abinikanda consistently being the most productive running back on the roster.
Fortunately for the Tigers, Narduzzi was recently seen saying he thinks that Davis’ experience will be useful against Clemson. Narduzzi is right about that. Davis is a legitimately plus pass blocker which comes in handy behind a bad offensive line. Venables is too inventive of a blitz designer for Whipple to get away with playing a back who struggles in pass protection on third and long. Even keeping “Izzy” on the field on second and long can be risky. But what that means is one of the better players on Pittsburgh’s offense can be removed from the game if, and likely when, Pittsburgh struggles to run the ball against one of the best fronts in the country.
Fortunately for the Panthers, they have a strong trio of receivers, a versatile tight end, and a quarterback who is playing well enough to give them a chance against any team in the country. Jordan Addison (#3) drew strong praise from Dabo, and Jared Wayne (#5) and Taysir Mack (#11) are big, experienced targets who do damage against defenses keyed in on Addison.
At tight end, Lucas Krull (#7) is running plays Whipple used to draw up for Heath Miller in Pittsburgh. And Pickett, my god.
This leap came out of nowhere. The gap between completing about 60% of your passes and 70% of your passes is the gap between being a slightly above-average passer and one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the country.
After two consecutive years of roughly throwing a touchdown and a half to an interception, #8 has been good for twenty-one scores to one turnover this year. Quarterbacks don’t usually make leaps like that as a super-senior. Quarterbacks don’t usually make leaps like that ever. Pickett has even been more productive on the ground by getting better at picking his spots as a runner instead of scrambling into sacks.
This game is going to rest on his shoulders. Whipple is capable of drawing up and calling a good trick play, Abinikanda may spring a run or two loose, but outside of that, it is going to be on Pickett to avoid the pass rush and get the ball downfield.
It’s unlikely that the Panthers are able to string together drives on the Tigers but with how Clemson’s offense is playing that does not matter. The Tigers are fresh off of playing a game where the first team to score three times won, and I expect more of the same Saturday. Pickett and Co. are more than good enough to give the Panthers a chance.