Pitt’s game against Clemson on Saturday has been built up as one of the biggest in the program’s recent history, with the Panthers favored against the defending multiple-time ACC Champion Tigers.
But it’s not a must-win game for the Panthers. Thanks to Pitt’s 2-0 start an ACC play, including a win at Virginia Tech, the only one-loss team in the Coastal Division, the Panthers have a two-game lead on their divisional foes entering play Saturday.
If Pitt loses to Clemson, as long as it’s reasonably close, the Panthers will still be favored when Miami in North Carolina come to town in the following weeks, and wins in those games would secure the division.
From there, Pitt would likely face NC State or Wake Forest in the ACC Championship Game, which would seem winnable enough for the Panthers to have an inside track on a New Year’s Six bowl game, likely the Peach Bowl.
Such an outcome would represent Pitt’s best season since at least 2004, when it went to the Fiesta Bowl after winning a share of the Big East.
That’s a hell of a parting gift.
So Pitt does not need to beat Clemson to have a really, really good 2021 season.
What lies in the hands of Kenny Pickett and company on Saturday is something greater. ESPN FPI gives the Panthers a 16% chance of making the College Football Playoff entering play on Saturday.
A win over the Tigers, important both because Clemson is likely the best team remaining on Pitt’s schedule and because of the attention a victory over the dominant force of the ACC in the last decade would bring, would certainly make that number rise.
Pitt would still likely be an underdog to make the four-team playoff with a win over Clemson. They might be an underdog to get that far even if they win out, thanks to an unsightly non-conference loss to Western Michigan.
A win at Heinz Field on Saturday wouldn’t get them to where they want to be all by itself. But it would bring hope, something that has been just as difficult to find for Pitt fans.
In 2018, Pitt’s lone Coastal Division title season, the teams around the Panthers collapsed as Pitt rode a 7-5 record into Charlotte and got trounced by Clemson. The Panthers finished 7-7.
In 2005, the Panthers tied four other teams at 4-2 for the right to go to get pounded by Utah.
Neither season brought the level of hope that a win over Clemson and the prospects of being favored the rest of the way could produce.
Even if Pitt ultimately falls short of making the playoff, a season with actual national championship-type hopes has not been seen in these parts in a long, long time.
That’s what’s at stake for Pitt on Saturday. It’s not must-win. It’s a chance to provide every Pitt fan under the age of 40 something they’ve never experienced in their lives.
I’m not sure that comes with any less pressure.