Column | Pressure is a privilege: Embrace expectations of Clemson week


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Saturday’s football game vs. Clemson is one of the biggest home games in recent memory. Sports editor Stephen Thompson argues that it’s time for the team and its fans to meet the moment and embrace the expectations that come with success.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

At heart, I’m an anxious person. I overanalyze about as often as I breathe, which made being a Pitt fan a natural fit. Anxiety is a way of life for Panther fans. We’re self-loathing people, even when things are going well, because disaster is expected.

These heartbreaks are plentiful in Pitt lore. Scottie Reynolds. Mardy Gilyard. Tyler Ennis. The 25-point blown lead from the 2014 Armed Forces Bowl. Early NCAA Tournament exits in consecutive years to inferior opponents for volleyball. More recently, Pitt football has endured a 51-6 home drubbing at the hands of rival Penn State and collapsed on the goal line in a 17-10 loss at Happy Valley the following year. Even this season, which has been a resounding success to date, includes a 44-41 home loss to the MAC’s Western Michigan as its lone blemish.

Ask any seasoned Pitt fan and they’ll be able to rattle off a lifetime’s worth of letdowns — instances when the Panthers had every reason to win yet failed.

But this season, something’s shifted. You can feel it in the air. Driven by a high-flying offense and led by a quarterback that has been the face of the program ever since toppling then No. 2 Miami in 2017, the Panthers have confidence and they should because they are facing their toughest test at the right time.

They’ve already defied self-deprecating expectations by finally beating a Power 5 team on the road and, just last weekend, defeating Virginia Tech thoroughly in a hostile environment at Lane Stadium while favored by nearly a full touchdown.

When the ACC released the full schedule in late May, Pitt fans ran through different scenarios as their eyes drifted through the non-conference slate and beginning of ACC play. UMass, New Hampshire and Western Michigan all seemed likely wins. Tennessee presented a road challenge, but the Volunteers were a three-win team in 2020 and are still breaking in a new head coach. Georgia Tech — another rebuilding project still in its relative infancy — was the last thing that stood between the Panthers and a mid-October trip to Blacksburg against the preseason top-25 Hokies in Week Seven, their first true test.

Everyone paused when they reached Week Eight and that iconic and infamous orange paw print appeared. When Pitt fans saw the Clemson Tigers, a golden standard of college football dominance and the ACC’s equivalent of the Death Star, would visit Pittsburgh on Oct. 23, they dared to believe.

The schedule unfolded such that the Panthers could conceivably meet the Tigers on even footing, not an afterthought as they had in previous matchups, but no one imagined how these first seven weeks would play out.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would have predicted that Pitt would be favored, in this game and in the race for the ACC title, while Clemson struggles to maintain their grip on a winning record.

Pitt lost to Western Michigan in a heartbreaker, but has responded dominantly, winning the next three games by an average of 41 points. Meanwhile, the preseason top-two ranked Tigers have fallen dramatically from their perch atop the conference and country.

This is not the Clemson of Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Mike Williams, Travis Etienne and superstars too numerous to name. The Tigers are shockingly ordinary this year, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, but are nonetheless loaded with top-end talent and coached by one of the sport’s all-time great football program builders. They are still a national brand and a win on Saturday will do just as much for the culture and psyche of Pitt football as it would if Clemson was the juggernaut of past seasons.

Clemson brings their ACC-leading scoring defense while the Panthers will defend home turf with their league-best offense. It will be strength-on-strength, an unstoppable force vs. an immovable object. In front of a national television audience on Saturday afternoon, Pitt will play one of the most anticipated home games in recent memory with a chance to announce themselves as one of the elite in college football this year.

This kind of opportunity would usually terrify Pitt fans, but it shouldn’t. Cleanse your minds of the cynicism and embrace this moment for what it is a chance to be the exception among a decades-long pattern of mediocrity.

As tennis legend Billie Jean King said, “pressure is a privilege it only comes to those who earn it.”

There’s a lot riding on this weekend’s game, but Panthers should wear that as a badge of honor. They have earned the weight of expectations, manifested in this opportunity on Saturday afternoon. All that’s left is to keep winning and compound the pressure further.

No. 23 Pitt and Clemson will kickoff their marquee matchup at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at Heinz Field. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.