ACC Championship Game 2018 : Dec. 01–At this point, Dabo Swinney might want to consider renting an Uptown apartment.
He’s in town often enough, after all. For the fourth consecutive season, Clemson’s football coach is back in Charlotte for the ACC Championship game, bringing with him another group of four- and five-star talents.
The Tigers (12-0) have now faced four different opponents in the past four title games, but barring a meltdown against Pittsburgh (7-5) on Saturday night, are on the verge of their fourth consecutive College Football Playoff appearance.
“There is a gap (between Clemson and the rest of the ACC),” Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said Friday. “They’re the benchmark of ACC football.”
And while Narduzzi is correct that Clemson is heavily favored in Saturday night’s game — the Tigers are 27.5-point betting favorites against the Panthers — Swinney was quick to point out the parity in college football on any given night.
“We respect every opponent. We know anybody can beat us,” Swinney said. “This very team has beaten us.
“I have no idea what we’re favored by. I have no clue. To me, it’s 0-0 when you kick it off. You got to prove it every week.”
With that said, here are five questions worth considering during Saturday night’s ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium:
1. Which Clemson star is the flavor of the game?
Trevor Lawrence. Travis Etienne. Christian Wilkins. Dexter Lawrence. Clelin Ferrell. The list goes on.
Pick your poison — which Clemson star do you gameplan to stop, and which ones step up to dominate instead?
With Etienne, the ACC Player of the Year, you have one of the more dynamic running backs in all of college football. Etienne’s 1,307 rushing yards are tops in the conference, and his 19 rushing scores are second-most of any back in the country. Then there’s Lawrence, the ACC Rookie of the Year, who has thrown for 22 touchdowns against four interceptions since taking over as the Tigers’ starter. And that’s without even mentioning Clemson’s standout defensive line, where on any given game Wilkins or Dexter Lawrence or Ferrell can take over.
Pitt might be able to gameplan against one or two of Clemson’s top players, but as each of the Tigers’ opponents this season have found out, good luck stopping all of them.
2. Does David Tepper make an appearance, and what can the Panthers owner learn?
ACC commissioner John Swofford said Friday he hasn’t yet met new Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, but that the two would get together at the stadium in advance of Saturday’s game. Given Tepper’s connections to Pittsburgh — he grew up there, attended both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, and was a longtime minority owner of the Steelers — it’s rather fitting that the Panthers are playing in Charlotte for Tepper’s first ACC championship game as owner.
But beyond meeting Swofford and enjoying a little local ball, what benefit would there be for Tepper to attend Saturday’s game?
The ACC Championship has a deal with the Panthers and Bank of America Stadium to keep the game in Charlotte through 2030, even with Bank of America Stadium’s tether with the Panthers ending next summer. The agreement also conditionally allows the ACC to move the championship to any new facility in the event Bank of America Stadium is replaced, as has been a topic of conversation since Tepper became owner.
This is the second non-NFL event BoA has hosted since Tepper was officially sworn in as owner over the summer, and it might give him a few ideas about how to improve the event in the future or even how best to carry it over to a new venue.
3. Who shows up: Good Pitt, or Bad Pitt?
The numbers are staggering.
In Pitt’s five losses this season, the Panthers are averaging 153.4 rushing yards and one touchdown per game. But in their seven wins, those numbers almost double — 289.3 rushing yards and 3.3 touchdowns per game.
Clemson has the nation’s No. 2 rushing defense, trailing only Michigan State, meaning Saturday figures to pit two strengths against one another.
So, which Pitt shows up in Charlotte?
4. Does Pitt have the discipline to make this a game?
Aside from the generally mediocre statistics for this Panthers defense — they’re 69th in total defense and 98th in third-down conversion defense — there’s another cause for concern in stopping Clemson’s dynamic offense.
All those stinkin’ penalties.
The Panthers are one of the most penalized teams in the country, averaging 7.25 per game for over 70 yards. That … is not exactly the formula for beating the No. 2 team in the nation. In what will surely be a Clemson-friendly crowd, just two hours up the road from the University, does Pitt have the discipline to not shoot itself in the foot?
If not, this could turn ugly fast. Which leads to…
5. Are we in store for a second consecutive blowout?
Last year’s ACC championship between Clemson and Miami was hailed as one of the country’s premier conference title games, featuring two top-10 teams bound for glitzy bowl games.
And then the game actually happened.
Clemson’s 38-3 undressing of Miami more than validated the Tigers’ incoming CFP appearance, but it also made for a less-than-exciting game. Considering Clemson hasn’t played a one-score game since Syracuse in September, while Pitt is coming off a 24-3 beatdown at the hands of those same Hurricanes, it’s not unfair to wonder if — or rather, how quickly — Sunday’s game gets out of hand.
Prediction: Clemson 41, Pitt 20
Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks