December 2, 2021

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The ACC’s Best Playoff Hope Is Pittsburgh. Yes, Really.

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The Atlantic Coast Conference started the 2021 college football season with reason for title-contending hope. Three ACC teams ranked in the top 15 of the preseason AP poll: No. 14 Miami and the electric D’Eriq King looked like they were finally “back”; No. 10 North Carolina seemed ready for a trip to the promised land, guided by likely first-round draft pick and Heisman candidate Sam Howell; and No. 3 Clemson … well, Clemson was going to be Clemson. But all three teams lost their season openers, and none was especially inspiring in defeat.

That dismal Week 1 was a portent of a dispiriting fall for ACC aficionados. Over halfway through the season, the ACC’s three preseason headliners are all out of the Top 25, and the conference is in danger of not sending a single representative to the College Football Playoff. According to FiveThirtyEight’s college football predictions, if the playoff were held today, the ACC would be shut out by a country mile — and the conference’s last hopes are in the hands of some unexpected names: Pittsburgh, North Carolina State and Wake Forest. The best playoff odds in the ACC, according to our model, belong to Pitt at 14 percent, well off the pace of the leaders of the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12; only the Pac-12, where No. 10 Oregon has 13 percent playoff odds, is worse off among Power Five conferences.

We could have seen this coming for the ACC, though, given the conference’s reliance on just one team for postseason success: its crown jewel, Clemson, which is in danger of missing its first playoff since the very first one. Back in 2019, we looked at how the Tigers’ wild success had long shrouded a profoundly weak showing from the ACC’s other members. Since the start of the 2010s, the conference had lagged behind the rest of the Power Five in adjusted point differential and All-American players, and just two schools — Clemson and Florida State — had fielded national contenders.

Though Florida State has been mired in mediocrity since 2017, Clemson had continued its stretch of dominance for over half a decade, building its identity around a defense that struck fear into opponents’ hearts and an offense deftly steered by two of the game’s preeminent passers. The Tigers’ defense hasn’t quite matched its predecessors, but it hasn’t been the problem unit so far in 2021: That would be the Clemson offense, which has completely lost its way.

Clemson’s passing has fallen off a cliff

Offensive and defensive expected points added per game for the Clemson football team, overall and by play type, 2014-21

season Offense Defense Passing Rushing Pass Defense Rush Defense
2014 +0.50 +15.65 +3.50 -3.01 +10.44 +4.78
2015 +12.54 +7.70 +8.99 +3.13 +5.32 +2.37
2016 +12.73 +8.28 +10.66 +1.51 +7.90 +1.22
2017 +8.31 +11.89 +2.49 +5.16 +7.17 +4.77
2018 +19.13 +13.83 +10.24 +8.92 +5.90 +7.52
2019 +19.89 +12.63 +8.80 +10.41 +7.17 +5.36
2020 +14.17 +9.78 +10.75 +3.41 +3.67 +6.28
2021 -2.32 +7.64 -4.25 +2.20 +3.79 +4.11

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Those passing numbers aren’t just bad — they’re historically abysmal. At 5.66 yards per attempt, Clemson’s passing ranks 124th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and if the season ended today, that number would rank 496th out of 520 Power Five team-seasons during the playoff era. The bulk of that quarterbacking fiasco falls on the shoulders of sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei, whose strong performance in limited time last season led many to believe he would ably fill the shoes of the departed Trevor Lawrence. Uiagalelei’s paltry 41.5 Total QBR this season may be at least partly a function of attrition at skill positions — most notably, running back Travis Etienne and wide receivers Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell — and an offensive-line situation that head coach Dabo Swinney has described as “musical chairs.” No matter the reason, Uiagalelei has fallen far short of delivering on the Heisman expectations that have come to define being QB1 at Clemson.

But let’s not forget about the usurpers of the ACC order, who each still have a puncher’s chance at the playoff. After Pittsburgh, N.C. State and Wake Forest have 8 and 7 percent chances to make the playoff, respectively. By ESPN’s total efficiency metric, each school is having its best season since at least 2004, and by Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), Pitt is having its best season since Dan Marino patrolled the Steel City, while Wake Forest is enjoying its best season in program history. This is also the best cumulative performance for the three schools since Pitt joined the ACC in 2013:

If the Marino comparison seems far-fetched for Pitt, consider the gaudy numbers of quarterback Kenny Pickett. After four ho-hum years in western Pennsylvania, the senior has suddenly established himself as one of the country’s best signal-callers, ranking second in Total QBR (88.4), fourth in passing touchdowns (21) and fourth in expected points added (EPA) per game on passes, all while throwing just one interception. His efficiency has earned him the No. 2 overall quarterback grade from Pro Football Focus, soaring NFL draft stock and even some Heisman buzz, despite not receiving a single vote for ACC Player of the Year in the preseason. 

Pickett’s prowess aside, the Panthers are elite on both sides of the ball, ranking even better on defense (fourth) than offense (seventh) by efficiency. Their defense was on full display in Saturday’s 28-7 romp at Virginia Tech, in which the Hokies managed just 3.7 yards per play and didn’t score until garbage time. Of course, this is still the same Pitt defense that allowed 44 points in a home loss to Western Michigan of the Mid-American Conference, so a letdown isn’t out of the question. But it’s worth noting that Pitt’s numbers hold up well against the resumes of past playoff teams: The Panthers’ 87.81 total efficiency is 27th in the playoff era, ahead of past invitees such as Ohio State in 2014 and Clemson in 2016 — both of which won it all.

As for N.C. State, it must have been déjà vu all over again for long-suffering fans when place-kicker Christopher Dunn missed his third field goal — this one to win the game — against then-No. 9 Clemson. But the Wolfpack rallied in overtime to secure the program’s biggest win in years, and hopes have been cautiously high in Raleigh ever since. After a broken fibula stifled his promising redshirt sophomore season in 2020, quarterback Devin Leary has rebounded this year to post the 18th-best Total QBR in the country, with 15 passing touchdowns against just two interceptions, leading an offense that has scored at least four touchdowns in three of its past four outings.1 The Wolfpack defense has also stepped up, with the 15th-best unit by EPA per game and sixth-best run defense. The road ahead isn’t easy for N.C. State, with a trip to face Wake Forest and a regular-season finale against a North Carolina team looking to salvage its season by playing spoiler against its bitter rival. But ACC title opportunities have been hard to come by in many Wolfpack sports over the years, and the football team’s 23 percent chance to reign victorious in Charlotte is arguably just as tantalizing to Wolfpack fans as any playoff proposition.

Wake Forest, meanwhile, is not as well-liked by advanced stats, holding the 15th-best overall efficiency — including the 70th-best defense — behind playoff afterthoughts like Florida and Iowa State. The Demon Deacons and quarterback Sam Hartman are formidable — yet not quite as strong — as the Panthers throwing the football, owning the eighth-best Total QBR in FBS and averaging the 10th-most EPA per game through the air. In recent weeks, they have squeaked by lesser opponents, Louisville and Syracuse, and they have benefited tremendously from a perfect 12-for-12 on field goals by place-kicker Nick Sciba.2 Our model sees the unbeaten streak ending sooner rather than later: Wake Forest has the longest odds to win out (just 3 percent) of any remaining ACC contender, thanks to a challenging schedule that includes road games at Clemson and North Carolina and an intrastate tilt against N.C. State in Winston-Salem.

Of course, it would be symbolic of the modern ACC’s dynasticism if Clemson managed to eke out a seventh straight crown in the first up-for-grabs season in nearly a decade, thereby spoiling the chances of its conference brethren or even becoming the first multiple-loss team to make the playoff. Right now, the Tigers have just 16 percent and 3 percent odds to win the ACC and to make the playoff, respectively, and when they take on the Panthers this Saturday, they will be underdogs in a conference game for the first time since 2016. But if there’s any lesson to be learned of the ACC in the playoff era, it’s that you can’t count on many others than “little old Clemson.” 

Check out our latest college football predictions.

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