ACC Championship Game 2021: Early Preview, Predictions for Pitt vs. Wake Forest
The 2021 ACC Championship Game will feature two schools in Pitt and Wake Forest that don't have a long history of playing in the conference's title game.
Both schools clinched 10-win seasons in the final week of the regular season and the right to play for a New Year's Six berth next Saturday. Neither team was expected to be in the conference championship game in the preseason poll in the conference.
Wake Forest was tabbed to finish fifth in the Atlantic division. Instead, the Demon Deacons locked up their first conference championship game appearance since 2006 when they beat Georgia Tech 9-6 and went on to play Louisville in the Orange Bowl.
Pitt has been to the game a little more recently. It was picked to finish fourth in the Coastal but will now go to the game for the first time since 2018 when it was shellacked by Clemson.
Both teams finished the season with 10-2 records. Both have high-powered offenses with strong quarterback play. This is going to be a fun one, so let's dive in.
When Pitt Has the Ball
Pitt has been anchored on offense by one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Kenny Pickett. The senior tossed four touchdown passes in the season finale against Syracuse to surpass Dan Marino's school record for passing touchdowns in a season.
It also moved him up to No. 2 in the country in passing touchdowns, tied with Bryce Young at 40. There's a case to be made for Pickett to win the Heisman Trophy given what he's done with a program that isn't a traditional powerhouse and the stats he has put up along the way.
It isn't just the Pickett show, though. Jordan Addison is a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation's best receiver every year. He's the best receiver Pitt has had statistically since Larry Fitzgerald.
The Pickett-Addison connection has generated 1,353 yards and 17 touchdowns this season so finding a way to slow Addison is going to be key for Wake Forest.
The secondary hasn't necessarily been lights out, but it hasn't been a liability, either. Wake Forest is 65th in yards allowed per attempt and 50th in yards allowed per game.
The real interesting matchup to watch will be how much Pitt wants to lean on the ground game. The Deacs are 113th in yards allowed per rush and have given up over 200 yards a game. It could be a big day for running back Vincent Davis.
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
The Demon Deacons have a dangerous quarterback in their own right in Sam Hartman. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the sophomore became just the fourth quarterback in the history of the conference to pass for 30 touchdowns and run for 10 more in a single season.
The last man to do that was Lamar Jackson in 2016.
Hartman is a dual-threat who is comfortable running the offense. While Pickett primarily has Addison to throw the ball to, Hartman has two 1,000-yard receivers to threaten the Pitt secondary.
A.T. Perry has been the more prolific of the two with 1,112 yards and 13 touchdowns, but Jaquarii Roberson isn't far behind with 1,024 and eight.
The tandem could spell doom for the Pitt defense. The Panthers have been stout against the run all season (allowing just 2.8 yards per carry), but the aerial defense has given up 7.9 yards per attempt (95th in the country).
If Wake Forest is going to win this game it's going to be on the strength of Hartman airing it out.
Points. Lots of points.
These are two of the highest-scoring offenses in the country. Both are top five in points per game. Pitt has a legitimate first-round quarterback prospect in Pickett. Wake Forest has a rising star in Hartman throwing to two productive receivers.
Both defenses have their vulnerabilities too. Even if Pickett is having an off day the Panthers could lean on the ground game and expose the Wake Forest run defense.
Then again, Pitt's poor performance against the pass isn't what you want to see going against an offense like Wake Forest's.
Still, football this late in the season can come down to who can run the football and who can't. While the game itself isn't going to be a defensive battle, the unit that can make some crucial stops is going to win.
Right now, it's easier to feel more confident in Pitt because of the way it stops the run.
Prediction: Pitt 45, Wake Forest 38