Kevin Gorman: For Pitt, this ACC final can’t be a cameo
Pitt’s path to the ACC football championship game started not with a prediction by Pat Narduzzi but a pitch of potential.
Long before Narduzzi’s now-infamous “See you in Charlotte” line, he was preaching to prospects his vision that the Panthers had a chance to win the ACC Coastal Division and play for the conference title.
That pitch, rooted in fact, has come to fruition.
“That was their whole recruiting pitch,” said Pitt left tackle Stefano Millin, a graduate transfer from Kent State. “They believed they had enough talent coming back for this season to get to the championship game. … That’s been the goal since they started talking to me. To see it come to fruition just reaffirms my decision to come here.”
Pitt (7-5) is seeking its first ACC title when it plays No. 2 Clemson (12-0) at 8 p.m. Saturday at Bank of America Stadium, which means his promise-turned-prediction fulfilled its prophecy.
“Obviously, it’s a huge game,” Pitt senior fullback George Aston said. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s just another game we’re playing.’ It’s not. It’s an ACC championship game. To a lot of us, it’s the biggest game we’ve ever been in in our entire lives. In the offseason, we break down on ‘ACC champs.’ It’s starting to come true right now.”
The Panthers overcame losses to Penn State, UCF and Notre Dame in a brutal nonconference schedule — all three are nationally ranked and the latter two are undefeated — but even beating all three wouldn’t have meant as much if the Panthers fell short of Charlotte.
“You need an opportunity to get there. You don’t have a chance until you get there,” Narduzzi said. “I’ve preached in recruiting for the last four years that we have a chance in Pittsburgh to play in a championship game, OK? When we get there, we have a chance to win a football game.
“Now, we’ve got to go prove we can win a championship game. But the first step is to get there. Once we can get there, then you can get there again and our kids can believe even more when we preach that.”
The odds of Pitt winning the ACC title are a lot longer than they were for the Panthers to see Charlotte.
Clemson is a four-touchdown favorite — the same odds Pitt had before its 13-9 upset victory over No. 2 West Virginia in the 2007 finale — and the Tigers are in their fourth consecutive ACC final.
But Pitt beat a previously undefeated Clemson two years ago in Death Valley and a previously undefeated Miami last year at Heinz Field, so the Panthers know they have a chance of knocking off another No. 2.
“I don’t talk about it because it doesn’t matter, really. (Clemson will) be more prepared this time because of it. They will probably be angry, and our guys will have to come angry, period,” Narduzzi said. “Deep down, maybe it gives our kids a little bit of belief when they’re sitting back in their dorm or sitting in class day-dreaming that, ‘Hey, we’ve done this before. We can do it again.’ But that’s not going to help us when that whistle blows for that opening kickoff.”
Narduzzi knows the chances of Pitt pulling off another major upset are minimal. Clemson has won the past three ACC title games, beating Miami, 38-3, last year, Virginia Tech, 42-35, in 2016 and North Carolina, 45-37, in ’15.
If you are noticing a trend, it’s that Pitt is the sixth school to represent the Coastal in the ACC championship game since ‘13. Where Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech reached the final in the first eight years, it’s since been a crapshoot to determine the Coastal champion.
The Atlantic is a different story, as either Clemson (six) and Florida State (five) has appeared in all but three finals. Wake Forest won in 2006, and Boston College the next two years.
Win or lose, the key for Pitt is to make this more than a one-time thing. The Panthers are getting their first taste of an ACC championship game, which should leave them wanting more. History shows that the second appearance is more fruitful, as Virginia Tech lost in ’05 but returned to win in ’07 and ’08 and that Clemson lost in ’09 but has won four since.
“It’s a real special thing,” Pitt senior defensive tackle Shane Roy said. “Obviously, that’s always the goal, every season, is to make it to this game. And we don’t want to just make it there. We want to win it.”
That forced Narduzzi to adjust his team’s goal mid-sentence, knowing no one wants to break their huddle by chanting “ACC finalists.”
And that this can’t be a cameo.
“So, really, when you look at it we’ve met our goals here,” Narduzzi said. “But the job’s not done. It’s never done.”
Now that the prediction came to fruition, it has provided the potential for prophecy. That’s a pitch that Pitt can preach until it wins the ACC title.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.