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Pitt, Wake Looking to Make History

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb previews the ACC Championship Game: Pittsburgh vs Wake Forest.

It’s been seven years since a program other than Clemson won the ACC Championship Game. It’s been even longer -- 11 years -- since a program other than Clemson or Florida State captured the ACC conference crown.

But that’s only half the story in the most unexpected ACC Championship matchup ever that will take place between Wake Forest and Pitt this Saturday.

The Demon Deacons haven’t won the ACC Championship since 2006, and the Panthers have never won a conference title game. That’s in the ACC or any other conference.

The first Saturday of December is always a day for history in college football. But the ACC Championship will provide fans not only history but either an unprecedented or a near unprecedented result.

It was a long climb to the top of their respective divisions for both Wake Forest and Pitt. The Demon Deacons last won at least 10 games the same year they won the ACC Championship (2006), but they’ve been competitive for six seasons under coach Dave Clawson.

In the first two seasons under Clawson, Wake Forest won six combined games. Then in 2016, the program faced a truly unique circumstance of adversity when Wake Forest radio announcer Tommy Elrod leaked game plan information to opponents. The Demon Deacons overcame that situation to finish 7-6 and won their first bowl game in eight years.

From that point forward, Clawson began building an offensive juggernaut (maybe not a coincidence that the rise began after Wake Forest fired Elrod from his announcer gig). The Demon Deacons have finished fourth or better in total yards per game each of the last five years. During that stretch, they’ve also been fifth or better in points scored per game.

In 2021, Wake Forest finished the regular season first in the ACC in points with 42.9 per game and second in yards with 483.6 per contest. Despite struggling a bit in November, sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman emerged as one of the best signal callers in the conference this season, posting 3,711 passing yards, including 8.8 yards per attempt, and 34 touchdowns. He was third in the ACC in all three categories.

As ACC football fans saw with the North Carolina offense this season, though, quarterbacks don’t really carry teams on their own. Wake Forest is no different, as the Demon Deacons feature the only 1,000-yard wide receiver duo in the conference.

Sophomore wideout A.T. Perry was a big-play machine all season, averaging 19.9 yards per reception (1,112 receiving yards total) and 13 touchdowns. He was second in receiving touchdowns and third in yards per catch in the ACC.

Junior wide receiver Jaquarii Roberson wasn’t bad either. He led Wake Forest with 62 receptions and posted a new career high with 1,024 receiving yards.

The Demon Deacons began the season 8-0 and were an outside contender for the College Football Playoffs in early November. They went 2-2 down the stretch but defeated Boston College on the road by 31 to clinch the Atlantic division.

Wake Forest scored at least 35 points in 11 of 12 games this season.

The only ACC offense as explosive and consistent as Wake Forest’s will be on the opposite sideline Saturday night. Second in both points and yards per game, Pitt finished ahead of Wake Forest in yards and just behind the Demon Deacons in points.

Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett emerged as a Heisman candidate and potential high NFL draft pick this season. He threw 40 touchdowns -- five more than anyone else in the ACC -- with only seven interceptions. Pickett was also first in the conference with a 67.7 completion percentage and second with 338.8 passing yards per game.

His favorite target was sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison, who led the ACC with 1,353 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. He also had 85 catches, the second-most in the conference.

Pickett’s rise is a microcosm of Pitt’s ascension in the ACC Coastal division. Unlike other football powers coming from the Big East that now share the Coastal, Pitt wasn’t really taken seriously as a championship contender over the years. That’s in part because every time the program seemed to take a step forward, it then suffered a bad loss.

This year didn’t look like it was going to be any different when Pitt lost to Western Michigan in September a week after knocking off Tennessee on the road. But the Panthers opened up conference play 3-0 and then won their last four games after tripping up against Miami on Oct. 30.

Pitt won 10 games for the first time since 2009. If the Panthers win Saturday, it will be their first 11-win campaign since 1981. A victory will also give Pitt its first outright conference title.

The Big East didn’t have a conference championship game, and the Panthers lost their only other appearance in the ACC title game at the end of the 2018 season. Pitt shared the 2004 and 2010 Big East titles.

But even if the Panthers don’t capture their first outright conference championship, they can still lay claim to the fact they are the first program to win the Coastal twice in three seasons (excluding 2020 when there were no ACC divisions) since Georgia Tech did it in 2012 and 2014.

Pitt will have to replace Pickett, senior linebacker John Petrishen, who is third on the team in tackles, and maybe other key contributors to this year’s team, but it’s the Panthers -- not Hurricanes, Hokies or Tar Heels -- who are becoming the most consistent program in one of the college football’s craziest divisions.

As great as that is, no accession is complete until reaching the very top. Neither Wake Forest or Pitt will achieve that Saturday night in a truly unique conference championship matchup.

Oh, and by the way, it will likely take plenty of points to do it.

Prediction: Pitt 51, Wake Forest 48