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Can Pitt emerge from the ACC’s Coastal quagmire?

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Can Pitt emerge from the ACC’s Coastal quagmire?

The Panthers moved to 3-1 in the ACC after Saturday's 54-45 win against Duke.

The Panthers moved to 3-1 in the ACC after Saturday's 54-45 win against Duke.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

The Panthers moved to 3-1 in the ACC after Saturday's 54-45 win against Duke.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

The Panthers moved to 3-1 in the ACC after Saturday's 54-45 win against Duke.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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The ACC is currently in the midst of an identity crisis. In its Atlantic division, perennial football powerhouse Florida State — which has gone to a bowl game every year since 1982 — is in shambles, currently sitting at 4-4 overall and 2-4 in the conference. Meanwhile, Louisville is winless in the ACC after rattling off four straight seasons of eight or more total wins.

In the Coastal, typically dominant Miami — picked by most pundits to win the division for the second straight year — finds itself on the outside looking in after a second ACC loss to Boston College last Friday. And Virginia Tech, which hasn’t had a losing season since 1992, looks uncharacteristically inconsistent, losing to pitiful Old Dominion in one of college football’s biggest upsets in recent history, then dropping a critical ACC game to Georgia Tech last Thursday.

Through eight weeks, it seems safe to say the ACC preseason rankings were a total joke. Virginia, picked to finish last in the Coastal, is currently first with a 4-1 ACC record. Syracuse, projected to finish last in the Atlantic, is 6-2 overall and third in the division. Just above them is Boston College, who was picked to finish fourth. Either the media members need to do their homework — one person, who obviously doesn’t take their job seriously, picked UNC to finish first in its division — or the conference has just been overtaken by anarchy.

Only undefeated No. 2 Clemson has lived up to preseason expectations. Amid the underperformance of the conference’s aforementioned favorites, a slew of historically average programs has risen toward the top. Led by Virginia, Boston College and Syracuse, these teams represent the ACC’s high level of parity and unpredictability this season. Already, a circular food chain can be devised that would imply any team can beat any other team — Duke beat Georgia Tech, Georgia Tech beat Virginia Tech, Virginia Tech beat UNC, UNC beat Pitt, but Pitt beat both Duke and Georgia Tech — and so on and so forth.

Despite being battered by a challenging non-conference schedule, Pitt remains in contention to clinch a Coastal title — something the team has never done since joining the ACC in 2013 — with a solid 3-1 record and third-place standing in the conference. So the question remains. Do the Panthers have what it takes to earn their first division championship?

Pitt has four games left in its regular season schedule, all against ACC opponents — at No. 23 Virginia, home against Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest and at Miami. Since Pitt came to the ACC in 2013, the Coastal champion has finished with a 6-2 conference record three out of five times, making that the ideal finishing goal for the Panthers. And with every team in the division already at one loss or more, it’s all but a guarantee that finishing the season 3-1 will earn Pitt a spot in the ACC championship.

So Pitt can afford to lose one game, but it has to be against the right team. Ideally, the Panthers would knock off the two one-loss teams right above them in the standings — Virginia and Virginia Tech — over the next two games, thus dealing each two losses and securing the tiebreaker over both. Then, after beating Wake Forest — a safe assumption — the Panthers could lose to Miami in the season finale, assuming Miami suffers one more lethal ACC loss in the three games between now and then, likely at Virginia Tech — and still come out as Coastal champs.

In another scenario, Pitt could beat Virginia, Wake Forest and Miami but lose to Virginia Tech. Pitt would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker, instead relying on the Hokies to drop two out of their other three games — a perfectly possible proposition, considering they face No. 24 Boston College, Miami and No. 23 Virginia.

In both cases, it is crucial that Pitt beats Virginia in this Friday’s upcoming matchup. That’s because Virginia finds itself with the easiest remaining schedule — and therefore path to a Coastal title — with only three more ACC games against Pitt, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

Plus, if the Panthers lose to Virginia, they’ll need to beat both Miami and Virginia Tech — an extremely tall order, given their past struggles with those teams. The Panthers have played well against Virginia in the past, beating them four out of five times since joining the ACC, so they need to take care of business in a winnable game to allow room for a later loss.

Of course, all this is just theoretical — the Panthers are just as likely to go 1-3 down the stretch as they are to go 3-1. In all likelihood, they’ll go an even 2-2 and narrowly miss out on that elusive Coastal title, finishing second in the division for the third time under head coach Pat Narduzzi.

But in a rare season when conference elites are having a down year, now is the time to dream big about Pitt’s chances. Sure, the Panthers have no passing game to speak of, with their 146.4 yards per game ranking above only Georgia Tech in the ACC. And the defense has been bad, allowing a third-worst 396.6 yards per game — including a season-high 619 yards to Duke last week.

Yet there’s something to be said for this resilient, senior-laden Pitt team that has eked out three out of four ACC games in spite of its weaknesses. The run game has been effective, as the Panthers rank fourth in the conference with 227.9 rushing yards per game. And the defense has shown the ability to succeed, holding No. 3 Notre Dame to only 19 points on the road.

So, despite losing a crucial conference game to lowly one-win North Carolina, Pitt has been given new life thanks to the ACC becoming the football embodiment of Murphy’s law. And in the quagmire that is the Coastal division, the Panthers may just come out on top.

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Can Pitt emerge from the ACC’s Coastal quagmire?