Friedlander: Losses put early end to realistic Playoff hopes for Pitt, Miami
Of all the words that were spoken at the ACC’s two-day preseason kickoff event in Charlotte this summer, and there were many, leave it to that noted football philosopher Mack Brown to have made the most profound statement.
“It’s interesting that today is about hype,” he said. “It’s about hope for all of us. Real football starts for us in a week and then by about midseason there’s about 75% of the ones that are hyped today that aren’t playing well.”
The only inaccuracy of that assertion is that it didn’t take until midseason for the shine to come off several ACC teams.
And for the hype to end for two others.
Miami and Pittsburgh didn’t just enter the season with high hopes of winning an ACC championship. They also spoke openly about their goal of playing their way into the College Football Playoff.
It only took until Week 2 for the Panthers’ hopes to end with an overtime loss to Tennessee. The Hurricanes’ national aspirations followed suit shortly thereafter with Saturday’s 17-9 setback at Texas A&M.
While both teams remain favorites in the upcoming race for the Coastal Division title, the second half of their equations have already crash landed with the resounding thud of a game-winning field goal attempt doinking off an upright.
The fact that Miami is more pretender than contender shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. It’s been the Hurricanes’ identity for the better part of two decades now and changing it isn’t going to happen overnight.
Saturday’s game against an Aggies team coming off a loss to Appalachian State showed that new coach Mario Cristobal still has some recruiting to do before his program can reach a level of performance that comes close to matching expectations based on its brand name past.
“We’ve got to get better,” Cristobal said after a game in which Miami outgained A&M 392-264. “I’m proud of the fact we showed we could compete in a difficult environment, but competing in itself is just not enough. You’ve got to execute.
“It needs to burn. It needs to feel in a way motivational knowing that we could be a good team but becoming a good team is not just going to happen.”
Mario Cristobal: “Competing, in itself, is not enough." pic.twitter.com/0is4dtpOXx
— Adam Lichtenstein (@ABLichtenstein) September 18, 2022
Pitt is a different story. The Panthers earned their stripes by winning the ACC a year ago and returning an elite defense.
The disappointment of getting knocked out of Playoff contention so early is especially painful because of the circumstances surrounding the Week 2 loss to Tennessee.
Coach Pat Narduzzi’s defending ACC champs might very well have beaten the Volunteers had starting quarterback Kedon Slovis not gotten knocked out of the game just before halftime. Or if his backup Nick Patti didn’t have to play the fourth quarter and overtime hobbling on one good leg.
Despite the hardships, the Panthers still nearly won. But with a 4-team Playoff whose participants are selected subjectively by a committee rather than by automatic bid, extenuating circumstances don’t matter.
Unless you’re Alabama or Ohio State, there’s no such thing as a “good loss.”
Pitt would have to run the table the rest of the way, then beat a top-5 ranked Clemson in the ACC Championship Game to have any shot at sneaking back into the Playoff conversation. Even then, a lot of other things would have to fall into place for it to make the field.
While no undefeated Power-5 champion has been left out of the Playoff, the selection committee would have no problem passing over a 1-loss ACC champ in favor of a second-place team from the SEC or Big Ten, or an undefeated Group of 5 interloper in the mold of 2021 Cincinnati.
The expanded 12-team Playoff format with automatic bids can’t get here soon enough.
Since that’s at least 2 years away, the ACC’s best last chance at being invited to the New Year’s Eve party at either the Peach or Fiesta bowl – site of this year’s national semifinals – is the last team standing from the Atlantic Division free-for-all that’s about to take place.
That picture will become much clearer over the next 2 weeks after preseason favorite Clemson, which had its string of 6 straight Playoff appearances snapped with last year’s “down” 10-3 season, travels to defending division champion Wake Forest on Saturday before returning home to take on NC State.
A vastly improved Florida State could potentially jump in the mix as well. The Seminoles’ hype level has been raised considerably thanks to a dramatic nationally televised win against LSU and last week’s gritty come-from-behind victory at Louisville.
But as noted by UNC’s Brown, whose Tar Heels are also still undefeated, hype and hope can only take a team so far. At some point along the way, they eventually have to be backed up by results.
To this point, at least, the ACC’s results in the games that impact the Playoff picture most simply haven’t been good enough.