ACC Mismatch?: Pitt hopes to challenge No. 2 Clemson
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Neither Clemson coach Dabo Swinney nor Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi sees the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game as a looming blowout, no matter how many others do.
The second-ranked Tigers (CFP No. 2) come in on a major roll, the ACC Atlantic champions capping their second 12-0 season since 2015 with a satisfying, 56-35 victory over state rival South Carolina on Saturday night.
“We really have had a historic season, not just a great season,” Swinney said. “A lot of first time whatevers.”
First-time Coastal Division winner Pitt (7-5) stumbled in its final regular-season contest, dropping a 24-3 contest at Miami , dropping out of the Top 25 — and dropping their chances, in the eyes of many, of staging an upset of the powerhouse Tigers.
“I think our kids understand that we’re the underdog,” Narduzzi said Sunday. “Turn on any TV station or ESPN they’ll probably find out.”
But it was Narduzzi’s Panthers who own just one of two regular-season upsets of Clemson the past four seasons — the Tigers are 46-2 in the regular season during that stretch — when they went into Death Valley two years ago and defeated the nation’s second-ranked team.
Narduzzi said that landmark win won’t affect this week’s game, although it certainly helped build his program into ACC Coastal champions.
When you can topple a highly ranked opponent, Narduzzi said, “it gives your kids the belief that what you’re doing is the right stuff.”
Clemson has had plenty of the right stuff since its first ACC championship season under Swinney in 2011. The Tigers have 10 or more victories each year since, have made the past three playoff fields and won the 2016 national championship less than two months after getting shocked by the Panthers.
Swinney’s team has been heavy favorites against nearly everyone they’ve played this year and won their final eight games by margins of 20 points or more.
“It’s just business as usual,” Swinney said about facing lightly regarded Pitt.
Swinney holds players to a high standard of play, the focus totally on their week of practice and not who the opponent is, where the game is played or how high the stakes.
“Our team has done an amazing job of staying focused on the task at hand,” he said.
When they don’t, Swinney lets them know about it. It’s why he let loose on All-America defensive tackle Christian Wilkins on Saturday night when he flashed a Heisman Trophy pose in the end zone following his 1-yard touchdown run. The celebration drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and Swinney told Wilkins he’d never run the ball again if he did another selfish stunt like that.
Wilkins apologized, meaning Clemson’s offensive “Fridge Package” with nearly 700 pounds of defensive tackles in Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence lining up in the backfield might make it to the ACC championship game.
“It’s been a fun year,” Swinney said.
Even if it hasn’t always been adversity free. Swinney demoted last year’s quarterback starter Kelly Bryant behind strong-armed freshman Trevor Lawrence after the fourth game and Bryant, a graduate student in his fourth season, left the program with the intent to transfer.
Former Clemson running back C.J. Fuller, who was with the team last year, died suddenly at 22 years old in early October, shaking many of his former teammates.
Through it all, Swinney, Clemson has stayed the course play for another league title.
Pitt’s Narduzzi believes several of his players were looking ahead to the Clemson matchup during their week prepping for Miami. He’s confident the group that takes the field Saturday night will be ready to put forth their best performance and give themselves a chance few believe they have.
“The stars have to be aligned,” Narduzzi said. “You have to do things right and have a little luck along the way.”