How Do the Panthers Match Up Against Clemson In Pitt's Most Anticipated Game in Recent History

AP Photo/Wade Payne

Being a Pitt football fan is a sickness.  We constantly fear disappointment, but at the same time we fiend for it.  We go back to the well every year when the team gives us a bit of hope, just to fall face-first into the well like we have time and time again.  

Pitt fans will passionately argue our team needs more respect while also becoming incredibly fearful when we get too much of it.  It is truly a sickness, but I personally love every minute of it.  It's what being a true fan is all about.  If it was easy, everyone would do it.

And there is no greater testament to that than this upcoming weekend.  In my lifetime, there has not been a more anticipated game than Pitt’s upcoming contest against Clemson.  The only one I can think of is the regular season game against Cincinnati in 2009. 

However,  Harry Potter characters are more likely to utter the name “Voldemort” without shuddering than Pitt fans are when talking about that game against Cincinnati in 2009.  I may need to put an “explicit” tag on this article just for mentioning it.

So here we are again.  At the very peak of momentum, excitement, and, according to the latest sportsbook lines, facing real, albeit unlikely, chances at a National Championship.  That is new.  I have never rooted for a Pitt football team that had any shot at a National Championship. 

I have also never rooted for a Pitt football team that was favored to win their conference, since joining the ACC in 2011.  At the time of this writing, Pitt has the best odds to win the ACC according to Draftkings Sportsbook.  They also have the 10th best odds to win the National Championship.  Consider that Ohio State (3rd), Michigan (6th), and Iowa (9th) will all do their part to knock each other out, as will Oklahoma (4th) and Oklahoma State (7th) and Pitt, due to the mediocrity that is the ACC, actually has the easiest path.  Especially with how bad the Coastal division is this season.  

However, the next barrier in Pitt’s path is the defending, and perennial, ACC Champion, who has the next best odds to win the ACC behind Pitt.  That barrier is the Clemson Tigers.

"Not the Same Clemson Tigers"

Clemson has been a juggernaut in college football for the better part of a decade.  They have won the ACC six straight years and seven of the last ten years, among a couple National Championships thrown in there for good measure.  However, and I’ve already said this several times this week among everyone saying it as well, this is not the Clemson team we are used to.  At this point in the season, Clemson is typically putting up 50+ points on every opponent they face while holding those same opponents to total yardage numbers under 200.  The latter is still true, while the former is very not.

The Clemson offense has struggled this season.  And I don’t mean struggled relative to their usual expectations.  They have struggled relative to the entire nation.  The Tigers are scoring just 20.5 points per game ranking them 177th among all of the FBS.  Their passing game is especially bad, only averaging 180.3 yards per game, ranking it 174th in the country.

Compare that to Pitt who is averaging 358 yards per game passing which ranks the Panthers 10th in that category.   In fact, Kenny Pickett through six games this season has the same amount of passing yards, 1,934 passing yards, as the Clemson Tigers have total yards.

The Tigers running game has not been much better.  They are averaging just 142 rushing yards per game, which may seem like a lot, but not in the current day of college football where your quarterbacks are also typically running for 30-50+ yards a game.  That average yardage ranks Clemson at 135th in the country rushing.  

What also grades out well for Pitt is that Clemson quarterback, D.J. Uiagalelei, is not especially good at running himself.  The two quarterbacks Pitt had the most trouble containing from a rushing standpoint, Hendon Hooker from Tennessee and Jeff Sims from Georgia Tech, are averaging 56 and 64 yards rushing per game respectively.  Uiagalelei is averaging just 31.  This will allow Pitt to drop occasional help into coverage and not have to constantly worry about keeping an eye on the quarterback.  The Tigers do have some very talented skill players on the offensive side of the ball so if they do figure it out, it could be deadly.  They just have not shown that ability to this point.

Clemson is Still Clemson

On the contrary, Clemson’s defense is as good as their offense is bad.  They are still very much the Clemson Tigers of old if you only watch their defensive series. Their only opponent to score 20+ points this season are the NC State Wolfpack, and it took overtime to do so.  They even held the Georgia Bulldogs to 10 total points in their season opener, and Georgia is scoring 38+ points per game.

Fortunately, the Panthers defense has been stepping up as of late because Clemson is still a very difficult team to win on the back of your offense.  Pitt has depended on their offense most of the 2021 season, but the defense is improving.  Also, it does appear that if any offense can figure out the Tigers defensive schemes, or any schemes for that matter, it is Kenny Pickett and the Panthers.  The offense needs to be on point Saturday because a low scoring contest could really go either way.  

Also, do not be fooled by an unranked Clemson.  They have only lost to the No. 18 and No. 1 ranked teams in the nation.  In fact, two losses of that caliber could still award them a spot in the College Football Playoffs with how crazy this college football season has been.  They also still have one of the most respected head coaches in the country and one of the best defensive coordinators.  Hopefully, despite all of this, Pitt can be the third ranked school the Tigers take a loss to this season and end Clemson's playoff hopes for good.

Concluding Thoughts

I believe this will be a very tight game through to the end.  The turnover margin will go a long way to telling who will win this game, and I like Pitt's chances with Kenny Pickett under center.  However, if the offense cannot get going like they have so far, and Clemson finally figures out a game plan to properly feature their skill players on offense, it could be one gigantic, hearts ripped out of Panther fans' chests, disappointment all over again.