Who has the edge? ACC Championship Game
CHARLOTTE — In the 66-year history of the Atlantic Coast Conference, no team has won four straight outright league championships in football. That’s what the second-rank Tigers can do tonight with a win over Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship Game (8 p.m./ABC) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
The Tigers (12-0, 8-0 ACC) are also looking for their fourth straight win in the conference championship game, which will make them not only the first ACC team to do such in the 14-year history of the game, but it will make them just the second Power 5 school to do it since conference title games began in 1992.
Only Florida has done it when its 1993-’96 teams won four straight SEC Championship Games.
Pitt (7-5, 6-2 ACC) is making its first ACC Championship Game appearance. The Panthers, who have already taken down two No. 2-ranked teams under head coach Pat Narduzzi, including a second-ranked Clemson team in 2016, would love nothing more than to prevent Clemson from making history.
Also, a Pitt win would knock the Tigers out of the College Football Playoff race. So, who has the edge?
Clemson’s run defense vs. Pitt’s rushing attack: The Panthers want to run the football. That is what they do. Pitt ranks third in the ACC in rushing offense, rushing for 232.7 yards per game. They average 5.8 yards per carry, with big bruising tailback Qadree Ollison. The senior has rushed for 1,134 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. He is averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Ollison’s backup, Darrin Hall is also very productive running the football. He has rushed for 935 yards and 9 touchdowns and is averaging 7.6 yards per carry. But as Pitt’s rushing attack goes, so do the Panthers. Miami held them do a season-low 69 yards a week ago. They averaged just 1.8 yards per carry. The Hurricanes’ defensive front is good, but Clemson’s is better, much better. With ACC Defensive Player Clelin Ferrell leading the way at defensive end, along with Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant, the Tigers lead the ACC in rushing defense, giving up 84.8 yards per game and 2.2 yards per carry. Clemson also ranks second in the ACC in tackles for loss with 112. Advantage: Clemson
Travis Etienne vs. Pitt’s rushing defense: Etienne, the ACC’s Player of Year, led the league with 1,307 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns. He is averaging 8.0 yards per carry, which also leads the league for running backs over 100 carries. The Tigers want to lean on Etienne in the postseason, which showed in last week’s win over South Carolina. He carried the ball a career-high 28 times for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Pitt’s rushing defense has been suspect all year. Though the Panthers want to be physical up front, they have allowed 174.3 yards per game on the ground, including 4.7 yards per carry. They gave up 293 yards to Miami last week, including 9.2 yards per carry. Though the Hurricanes are known for stopping the run on the defensive side of the ball, on the offense side they average just 197.3 yards per game, which ranks sixth in the conference. Advantage: Clemson
Trevor Lawrence vs. Pitt’s secondary: When playing Clemson, a defense has to pick what poison it wants to take and hope it does not end them. Pitt will likely bring the safety down and dare freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence to beat them. The ACC Rookie of the Year has mostly been the poison of choice from opposing defensive coordinators. And though challenging the freshman quarterback makes sense, it has not worked out too well. Lawrence has thrown for 2,488 yards, while completing 66.2 percent of his 302 attempts. He has thrown an ACC-high 22 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions. His 8.2 yards per attempt average ranks second in the league. He leads the ACC with a 156.8 efficiency rating. The Panthers have been average, at best, when it comes to stopping the pass, allowing 225.6 yards per game and 22 touchdowns. However, they will still play tight-man coverage and try to jam Clemson’s receivers at the line, while trying to takeaway Lawrence’s windows of opportunities. Advantage: Clemson
Bottom line: Clemson’s defense is still smarting from its worst performance of the year last week against South Carolina. Add that incentive to the fact Pitt embarrassed the Clemson defense two years ago in the Panthers’ stunning victory at Death Valley and you can bet there will be an inspired unit on the field for the Tigers at Bank of America Stadium. But even if Clemson’s defense can’t get it done, can Pitt control the ball enough to slow down the Tigers’ high-powered offense? I think Clemson’s defense will come to play today and the offense will do its part as well. I look for the Tigers to roll to a record fourth-straight ACC Championship.
Prediction: Clemson 45, Pittsburgh 10