As the weather gets colder and the calendar flips from October to November, the college football postseason landscape slowly starts shifting into place. If your team has a losing record at this point, all hope for anything beyond a berth in the Meineke Car Care Bowl — sorry, the Belk Bowl — is typically lost.
For the Pitt football team, though, there’s still reason to be optimistic. No one else in the country had to play the murderer’s row of non-conference opponents the Panthers just went through. For them, the hard part is over.
Pitt enters Saturday’s game at Heinz Field against the Duke Blue Devils with a 3-4 overall record, but only one of those losses — a 38-35 defeat at North Carolina — came in conference play. The Panthers sport a 2-1 ACC record after home wins against Georgia Tech and Syracuse, and with each of their last five games coming against conference foes, they will have plenty of chances to move either up or down the ladder in the ACC Coastal Division standings.
“It is a positive,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said about the wide-open division race. “You can look at it and say, doesn’t matter what happened at Notre Dame, UCF. Still have your goals in front of you. I don’t think anybody is blind to that.”
Despite getting blown out at home by No. 17 Penn State, getting crushed on the road by No. 10 UCF and getting their hearts broken with a 19-14 defeat at No. 3 Notre Dame in their last game, the Panthers’ players know they still have a chance to accomplish what they set out to achieve at the start of the season: winning the ACC Coastal Division and making it to the ACC title game.
“We have everything we want right in front of us,” Pitt running back Darrin Hall said. “We have a chance to go 5-0 the next five weeks in the ACC, and be right in the spot we want to be.”
While winning out would clinch a spot in the ACC championship game for the Panthers, there’s a chance they could even afford one more slip up and still make it in with a 7-5 record overall and 6-2 in ACC play. But that scenario would likely lead to a tiebreaker with at least one other team, meaning the only team they can really afford to lose to is Wake Forest, which plays in the ACC Atlantic Division.
The Demon Deacons, though, might just be Pitt’s easiest opponent remaining on the schedule, as they’ve yet to win an ACC game this season. The toughest games for the Panthers will likely be the ones they need to win most to secure the tiebreaker at the end of the season: upcoming matchups against Virginia Tech (3-0 in ACC play), Virginia (3-1), Miami (2-1) and this week against Duke (1-2).
Although it’s only his second year on the field, sophomore defensive end Rashad Weaver said he considers himself a veteran on the team and has taken it upon himself to remind the younger players where they stand.
“Even though we’ve lost four games, we’re 2-1 in the conference and this whole season can end the way we want it to end, with going to an ACC championship and going to a bowl game after that, and everyone being happier than where they’re at right now, from the fans, to us, to the coaches, to everyone that’s part of this program,” Weaver said.
But while Pitt’s players and even their head coach realize the division is still there for the taking, Narduzzi refuses to let his team budge from the “one game at a time” mentality.
“I think they understand it is one at a time,” Narduzzi said. “Next three are here. Doesn’t matter. Only one that matters is Duke. The games get bigger if you win them. If you don’t win them, they get smaller. Got to make them bigger.”