Rest-of-season outlook, bowl projections for Pitt football

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Rest-of-season outlook, bowl projections for Pitt football

Pitt must win its next three games to have a chance of returning to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the ACC Championship game.

Pitt must win its next three games to have a chance of returning to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the ACC Championship game.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Pitt must win its next three games to have a chance of returning to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the ACC Championship game.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Pitt must win its next three games to have a chance of returning to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the ACC Championship game.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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With three games remaining in the regular season, Pitt football is largely in control of its own destiny. Stumble, and the Panthers could find themselves playing Louisiana Tech in the Walk-On’s Independence Bowl. Finish strong, and they might end up right back in the ACC Championship with a chance to redeem last year’s loss and shock the world against Clemson.

Pitt currently stands at 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the ACC. For comparison, the Coastal-winning Panthers of 2018 were 5-4 overall and 4-1 in the ACC through nine games. So, the team is in a similar spot as last season but with one key distinction — it doesn’t hold the tiebreaker over its main competition, Virginia.

Pitt and Virginia were tied for the Coastal lead throughout much of last year, until the Panthers came into Charlottesville in Week 9 and knocked off the Cavaliers 23-13 to take the head-to-head and full game advantage. That gave the Panthers some much-needed breathing room down the stretch, and they made the ACC Championship despite falling to Miami in their regular season finale.

This year was much different, with Pitt and Virginia meeting in Week 1. It didn’t take a fortune-teller to predict that it would be one of Pitt’s most consequential games of the season, with the result having massive implications for the Coastal title. The Panthers lost 30-14 in a game they certainly wish they could replay, considering Virginia now has the inside track on the division crown with a 4-2 ACC record.

Since Pitt came to the ACC in 2013, the Coastal champion has finished with a 6-2 conference record four out of six times. Four teams in the Coastal have already lost three or more games, safely ruling them out of contention. That leaves just Virginia, Pitt and Virginia Tech — in that order — with the best chance to win the division.

Pitt’s remaining games are at home against UNC (4-5 overall, 3-3 ACC), on the road against Virginia Tech (5-3 overall, 2-2 ACC) and at home against Boston College (5-4 overall, 3-3 ACC). It’s not exactly Murderers’ Row, but all three opponents are in the same ballpark of talent as Pitt.

For the Panthers to repeat as Coastal champs, they need to win all three games. That’s no small order considering the Panthers have gone 0-6 against UNC since joining the ACC, while Virginia Tech knocked off the same Miami team that beat Pitt. Boston College, in turn, beat Virginia Tech.

Even if the Panthers win out and finish 6-2 in the conference, there’s no guarantee that they’ll win the Coastal. They need Virginia to drop one of its final two ACC games, either against Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech. It’s all but guaranteed that the Cavaliers will take down lowly Georgia Tech, meaning their finale against the Hokies will be very interesting if Pitt beats UNC and Virginia Tech.

In the most likely scenario, Pitt wins two of its next three games, either suffering its annual loss to UNC or falling in a tough Blacksburg environment to Virginia Tech. The Panthers would finish with an 8-4 overall and 5-3 ACC record. Assuming Virginia doesn’t do the unthinkable and lose to both Tech schools, the Panthers will finish second in the Coastal.

This is the possibility most pundits are projecting, which would put the Panthers squarely in contention for one of two games — the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 27 or the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve in El Paso, Texas.

Making one of these bowls would be par for the course for the Panthers — their past two bowl appearances have come in the Pinstripe Bowl in 2016 and the Sun Bowl in 2018. Both are considered “First Tier” bowls within the conference.

Though these middling bowls are a far cry from the Orange Bowl appearance Pitt looked destined for before falling to Miami, each could provide a notable storyline for the Panthers. The Pinstripe Bowl pits an above-average ACC team against an above-average Big Ten team, and ESPN bowl expert Kyle Bonagura predicts a Pitt-Michigan State matchup. That means head coach Pat Narduzzi would face his former team, where he served as defensive coordinator from 2007-2014, for the first time since joining Pitt.

ESPN bowl expert Mark Schlabach, on the other hand, projects a Pitt-Stanford matchup in the Sun Bowl, which is notable because … it would be the exact bowl and opponent the Panthers played last season. Pitt’s history in the Sun Bowl is less than stellar — the team played one of its ugliest postseason games ever in a 2008 loss to Oregon State, and last year lost 14-13 to Stanford in a similar snoozefest. It would probably be best for everyone’s sake if Pitt stayed out of this cursed game.

Of course, the chance remains that Pitt wins out while Virginia falls to Virginia Tech. That’s certainly within the realm of possibility, considering Virginia Tech has beaten the Cavaliers an astounding 15 straight times in the lopsided in-state rivalry. If this happens, Pitt would repeat as Coastal champs and earn a date with Clemson in the ACC Championship, where the Panthers were infamously clobbered last season in an eight-yard passing effort for junior quarterback Kenny Pickett.

Clemson at least showed some vulnerability this season, eking out a 21-20 win over UNC on Sept. 28, though the Tigers remain one of college football’s most unbeatable teams. A rematch would at least allow Pitt the chance for a major upset and a shot at redemption — and for Pickett to throw for double-digit yards this time around.

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