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Clemson Won’t Disappoint Against Pitt

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Looking at the numbers, it’s not hard to see why Clemson could win another ACC Championship Game in blowout fashion.

Two-touchdown spreads in college football championship games are rare, but this weekend, the sport will feature three underdogs Las Vegas predicts to lose by at least 14 points.

The biggest favorite in any championship battle this Saturday is undefeated Clemson, who comes into its matchup against Pitt 12-0. The Tigers are favored to beat the Panthers by 27.5 points according to Las Vegas Insider.

On the surface, that’s an insane spread. The expectation has to be that both teams will play their best football on national television, in primetime with an ACC title on the line. And the last time these two played, Pitt actually won -- in Clemson, no less.

But looking at the numbers, it’s not hard to see why Clemson could win another ACC Championship Game in blowout fashion.

Pitt comes into this weekend with a 7-5 record. Nationally, they are regarded as the worst team in a Power 5 championship game this Saturday.

That may be true, but during the second half of the season, Pitt has been playing better than a team just one game above .500. The Panthers went 5-2 down the stretch with their best win coming against No. 20 Syracuse. Additionally, one of the losses was by just five points on the road against Notre Dame, who will very likely be in the College Football Playoffs.

Pitt discovering a potent rushing attack was why it was able to rally and win the ACC Coastal Division for the first time since the school joined the league in 2013. Over the last seven games, the Panthers averaged about 262 rushing yards per game and 6.29 yards per carry.

Four times during that span, Pitt rushed for more than 250 yards, and twice, the Panthers recorded at least 480 yards on the ground. Arguably, Pitt has been the best rushing team in the country since the beginning of October.

But unfortunately for the Panthers, they don’t do much else that well. In the ACC, they are ranked towards the middle of the road in points scored, total defense, and points allowed. The Panthers are also average in sacks and kickoff coverage.

And Pitt is towards the bottom of the ACC in red-zone offense and passing offense.

The latter fact could be why the ACC Championship turns into a blowout. If opponents can stop the Pitt running attack, then the Panthers have little ability to move the ball through the air.

That was evident last week against Miami. The Hurricanes shut down the Panthers rushing game better than anybody all season, holding Pitt to 69 yards on the ground and 1.82 yards per carry.

As a result, Pitt scored three points, losing 24-3. Pitt passed for only 131 yards and 5.5 yards per attempt in the defeat.

Clemson should have similar success shutting down the Panthers running game. The Tigers possess the second-best rushing defense in the entire country, as they allow an average of about 85 rushing yards per game.

Furthermore, they have, by far, the lowest rushing yards per carry average in the country at 2.23. The next closest is Northern Illinois, who yields 2.63 yards per rush. Clemson has also allowed seven rushing touchdowns all season, which tied for third-fewest in the nation.

With such a daunting Clemson defensive line and rushing defense, Pitt’s path to victory is slim. The Panthers average just 153.4 passing yards per game, which is the second-lowest in the ACC. The only team that passed for fewer yards in the conference this season was Georgia Tech, who runs the triple-option.

Other than its rushing offense, Pitt is superior to Clemson in kickoff return yardage and turnover margin. If the Panthers can earn a few takeaways and make a significant impact on special teams, perhaps they can shock the world.

But their most obvious path to victory is controlling the pace and clock with their rushing attack. And even then, they still may need to score 30 points to win because of Clemson’s quick-strike offense.

That’s just not very likely.

Clemson made history last season with its fourth straight ACC Championship victory, which is the longest streak since the game started in 2005. Unless something unforeseen happens, the Tigers will make it five straight and probably with little drama.