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Standing Up To Clemson

By Dave Holcomb
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Which one of the remaining ACC Coastal contenders is best suited to challenge Clemson?

A lot of experts have poked fun at the ACC Coastal this year for lacking a truly dominant team.

Yes, fans looking for a playoff contender won’t find one in the ACC Coastal, but they will see competitive football filled with surprises every Saturday. With two weeks left in the season, the division race is down to three teams -- Virginia, Pitt and Virginia Tech -- and two head-to-head matchups still remain.

The last team standing wins the division crown, but in the minds of many, all that means is the right to receive a beatdown against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.

While none of the three teams still in the Coastal race compare well to the Tigers on paper, a rematch between Clemson and Pitt stands to be the most competitive of the three possible matchups.

If for nothing else, the Tigers and Panthers can meet on the first Saturday of December to determine who is the superior wild cat. Oh, and there’s the intriguing storyline that these two programs met a year ago in the conference championship.

Playing in its first ACC Championship last season, Pitt lost to the eventual national champions, 42-10. Offensively, Pitt is built the same way as it was in 2018, but it’s improved defense gives the Panthers the best shot of any Coastal team of upsetting the Tigers.

Pitt enters Week 13 first in the ACC in both run defense and sacks. The Panthers are also second in time of possession. With those statistics, just about any football fan can lay out the formula for a Pitt win over Clemson.

The Tigers own the ACC’s second-best rushing offense, but if the Panthers somehow shut it down, making Clemson one-dimensional, Pitt would at least have a fighting chance. Then in obvious passing situations, Pitt could unleash its pass rush, which averages 4.5 sacks per game.

Pitt’s running game will have to help by chewing up yards and clock, keeping the ball away from Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense. That will shorten the game -- the analytics say there’s a higher chance to variance or an upset with fewer possessions. On average, Pitt has controlled the time of possession for 32:18 per game.

Virginia and Virginia Tech are good in these categories -- run defense, sacks and time of possession -- but they generally aren’t dominant like Pitt is.

Pitt did win the time of possession in last year’s title game, controlling the ball for nearly 35 minutes. Pitt also held Lawrence to a 50 percent completion percentage and only 4.9 yards per attempt, essentially making the Tigers one-dimensional but none of that mattered because Clemson rushed for 301 yards on just 35 carries.

Making Clemson’s offense one-dimensional again (and holding that one dimension to well under 8.0 yards per play) is key to an upset. Pitt’s run defense has gone from second-to-worst to second-best in the ACC; the Panthers have the best chance of slowing down the conference’s No. 2-ranked Clemson rushing offense.

The obvious problem, though, and why Clemson isn’t a good matchup for anyone, is the fact the Tigers don’t have any weaknesses. In addition to their top rushing attack, the Tigers are second in fewest sacks allowed and fourth in time of possession in the ACC. They can combate any of Pitt’s strengths.

Still, at least there’s seemingly a formula on paper that could lead to a Pitt upset. It’s harder to find one for Virginia or Virginia Tech.

If Clemson has an Achilles heel, it’s in the giveaways/takeaways category, but there are serious questions as to whether any of the potential three Coastal division contenders can take advantage of that weakness.

While Clemson leads the ACC in turnover margin, the Tigers had multiple giveaways in five of its first seven games this year. Lawrence has thrown eight interceptions this season.

But Clemson corrected that problem and has only posted one giveaway in the last four contests, and that lone turnover was an interception from backup signal caller Chase Brice.

Pitt owns a minus-4 turnover differential and has just 12 takeaways in 10 games. But Virginia is worse with only 11 takeaways and a minus-5 differential while Virginia Tech is only marginally better with a 15 takeaways and a minus-2 turnover margin.

One would think, with Pitt’s pass rush, the Panthers have the best shot of the three teams in generating turnovers versus the Tigers.

A running game to control the clock is essential, but so is an all-world quarterback performance. It’s pretty much a toss up between which Coastal team has the highest probability of delivering that.

Virginia Tech’s Hendon Hooker has the highest efficiency of the three candidates but a limited sample size and little game experience. Virginia’s Bryce Perkins doesn’t have any big-game experience either, but at least he’s a senior. His dual-threat ability could potentially be an x-factor.

Although Pitt’s Kenny Pickett has championship game experience, going 4-for-16 with eight passing yards and an interception in last year’s ACC Championship Game can hardly be viewed as an advantage.

Even if Pitt slows down Clemson’s running game, controls the time of possess and pressures Lawrence, Pickett will have to be much much better to end Clemson’s winning streak.

At this point, no matter who the Tigers play in the ACC Championship, there seems to be a higher probability that Clemson will be ahead by 21 points at the end of the first quarter than the contest being close in the fourth.

But if fans are still holding out hope for a nailbiter in Charlotte, on paper, Pitt provides the best chance of a tight ACC title game.

Of course, that won’t mean a thing when the Panthers have to visit the Hokies this Saturday.