College football fans across the country are going to have a lot of great options for games to tune into on Championship Saturday.
In the SEC, No. 1 Georgia faces No. 3 Alabama in Atlanta. In Ohio, No. 4 Cincinnati aims to remain undefeated and secure its playoff spot against No. 21 Houston in the American Athletic Conference title game. No. 2 Michigan and No. 13 Iowa face off in the Big Ten, and Appalachian State will try to spoil Billy Napier’s going-away party against No. 24 Louisiana in the Sun Belt.
But if fans are looking for a matchup between two supremely talented quarterbacks, Eric Mac Lain and Roddy Jones of the ACC Network recommend that folks turn their eyes toward Charlotte at 8 p.m. EST on ABC. That’s where No. 15 Pitt takes on No. 16 Wake Forest for the ACC crown, and where Kenny Pickett and Sam Hartman will be under-center.
“It’s going to be one of the best. I’m trying to think of matchups you could get that would be better,” said Jones, a former Georgia Tech running back. “In terms of what you got going on this weekend, this is it, man. If you want to see great quarterback play, this is where you come.”
Pickett and Hartman’s names are scattered across the charts for passing leaders this season. Pickett is fifth in passing yards (4,066) and Hartman is ninth (3,711). Pickett is fifth in completions (314) and Hartman is 18th (255). Pickett is second in passing touchdowns (40) and Hartman is ninth (34). Both are tied for second – behind Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe – for total touchdowns responsible for at 44.
Simply put, Hartman and Pickett aren’t just two of the best quarterbacks in the ACC, they’re among the top players in the country, and they’re both Heisman Trophy hopefuls.
Pickett needs one passing touchdown on Saturday to have 80 in his career at Pitt, which would elevate him past Hall of Famer Dan Marino on the program’s all-time chart. Two passing touchdowns on Saturday from Pickett would push him past Clemson’s Deshaun Watson’s 2016 record for the most scores through the air in a single season by an ACC quarterback.
One advantage that Pitt and Pickett might have in the matchup, Mac Lain believes, is that Pitt is playing with a better offensive line. Both quarterbacks have been sacked 26 times apiece this season, but the Panthers allowed Pickett to get sacked just four times in the past two games – wins against Syracuse and Virginia. Meanwhile, in that same stretch, Hartman has been sacked 10 times in games against Boston College and Clemson.
Pitt’s offensive line’s momentum is heading in the right direction.
“I think last week was a really good temperature check. Syracuse, all year, was getting after the quarterback and had some really good players on that defense,” said Mac Lain, a former Clemson offensive lineman. “So, I think that was a good temperature check to see where (Pitt’s) offensive line will be going into this one. When you think of Wake this year, I don’t think anyone is thinking, ‘Man, they have werewolves all over.’ There’s not that key guy where you just zoom in and say, ‘We’ve got to know where he is every single play.’ Pitt’s offensive line has played fantastic this year and will have to do that again.”
And, the Panthers don’t have to deal with a pass rush that’s second in the nation in sacks – that’s Wake’s problem.
“For Wake, I think the key is going to be handling Pitt’s defensive front,” Jones said. “They obviously struggled against Clemson’s defensive front. N.C. State was able to mess them up a little… When teams have forced them into their traditional drop-back game, it hasn’t gone especially well for them.”
Mac Lain added: “When you look at Wake Forest, you know, what did they learn from the Clemson game? Because Pitt is going to try and do something very similar. Now, it’s going to look a little different. I think (Pitt’s) defensive line is not as physically imposing as Clemson’s, but schematically it’s just as difficult.”
Under Pat Narduzzi, Pitt is 21-1 when its defense has at least five sacks in a game. The Panthers have registered at least five sacks five times this season, and are averaging 3.83 per-game, which is second nationally.
For Mac Lain and Jones, the other intriguing aspect of this match-up is that its between two coaches who – by the current standards of college football – have been at their respective programs for long tenures.
This is the seventh season at Pitt for Narduzzi, and the eighth season at Wake Forest for Dave Clawson. Virginia Tech has changed coaches this offseason – firing Justin Fuente and hiring Penn State’s Brent Pry – and Virginia and Duke are in the market for new head coaches too. In the ACC, only N.C. State’s Dave Doeren and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney have been employed by their schools longer than Narduzzi and Clawson.
“I think that sustainability is very important to this league. I don’t think that this is a stepping-stone league,” Mac Lain said. “I don’t think people take jobs in this conference to get other ones. I think that this can certainly be a final destination type of league here.”
Added Jones: “I don’t know if there’s any two coaches in the league that fit better at their institution. Pat Narduzzi is a western PA guy; it’s the area of the country that he’s from, being from Youngstown, Ohio. He’s grown up with that within his veins… And Wake Forest has a fit as well. (Clawson is) who embraces the fact that it is a developmental program and has a very clear vision of what that is.”