Advanced Outlook: Clemson-Pitt projections, players to watch

by - Staff Writer -
Etienne rushed for 156 yards against Pitt in 2018; Pitt hasn't allowed more than 156 yards in a game rushing this season.
Etienne rushed for 156 yards against Pitt in 2018; Pitt hasn't allowed more than 156 yards in a game rushing this season.

Clemson is stretching a run of being at least a 24-point favorite in 20-straight games versus unranked opponents. So yeah, it’s not expected to be close between the Tigers and Pitt Panthers on Saturday (3:30 p.m./ESPN).

Of course, the last time a 5-4 Pitt team came into Death Valley as a 3-TD-plus underdog on Senior Day -- it came out with the last win for an opponent on Clemson’s home field in 2016 (43-42). So yeah, the game still has to be played (given the right health conditions and medical staff agreements).

Here’s how they match up:

Efficiency ranks: Offense | Defense | Special teams

CU SP+ ranks (No. 3 overall): 6 | 14 | 111

Pitt SP+ ranks (No. 34): 80 | 15 | 10

CU ESPN ranks (No. 3 FPI rank): 9 | 4 | 80

Pitt ESPN ranks (No. 38): 80 | 27 | 41

(SP+ is a metric from ESPN's Bill Connelly, formerly of Football Outsiders and SB Nation, that combines ratings for the five factors of efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers. ESPN’s own measure follows a similar formula to measure team efficiency and is tied to the ESPN Football Power Index.)

Three players to watch: Pittsburgh

QB Kenny Pickett

Pickett (6-2 220) grades in the middle of the pack of the ACC QBs (79.2) after missing some action midseason. He is coming off of throwing for 404 yards in a 47-14 win over Virginia Tech last weekend. Pickett has dealt with some COVID-related personnel issues on the Pitt offense and rolled with it to wins over the last two games.

DE Rashad Weaver

Weaver (6-5 270) is grading the best in the ACC at his position (87.8), with strong marks in pass rush (85.4) and against the run (82.3). He’s totaled eight sacks and 29 hurries, as well as 21 stops and two forced fumbles.

LB Cam Bright

Bright (6-0 215) has been all over the field with his highest marks as a pass rusher (86.3/seven sacks/six hurries) and also tallying 22 stops with a solid grade in coverage (73.2) and against the run (75).

(Grades and advanced stats per Pro Football Focus)

Extra point

This week has had a weird feel -- not only for coming off of the first postponement of Clemson’s season but also no Clemson-South Carolina game on Thanksgiving week.

Due to the SEC’s ban on non-conference games during the pandemic, the longest continuous, non-conference rivalry in college football (111) will not be played this season between the Tigers and Gamecocks.

But what if they did? Hypothetically of course -- metrics give an idea of the gap between the programs at this point if they met on the field in 2020.

ESPN’s SP+ ranking has Clemson as 30 points better on a neutral field with the Tigers ranked third (27.1) and South Carolina 83rd (-2.8). ESPN’s FPI rating projects a closer matchup with Clemson favored by 26 on a neutral field, rating the Tigers third overall also (26.6) but the Gamecocks up to 69th (0.8).

Against three different coaches (one an interim), Dabo Swinney’s team has won six in a row in the series by 25 points per game. Given how the season is going in Columbia, another one of those beatdowns sure seems to have been in order.

The Projections

Both teams have had a postponement this month, with Pitt playing two games and coming off of a home win over Virginia Tech last week, and Clemson set to see its first action since Nov. 7 at Notre Dame, a 47-40 double OT loss.

Among common opponents, Pitt is 1-2 versus teams the Tigers have beat (21-10 win over Syracuse; 31-19 loss at Miami and 31-30 OT loss at BC). Both teams lost to Notre Dame but the Panthers were blitzed at home in late October (45-3 defeat).

This is another situation where the metrics aren’t quite where the Vegas odds are (24 points), with a 3-TD margin the projection among SP+ (21.1), FPI (20.6) and FEI (21.9).

With the combo of an extended layoff (and especially for QB1 Trevor Lawrence) plus maybe an extra edge out of the weekend events in Tallahassee plus where Pitt falls health-wise going into Saturday -- it’s anyone’s guess on the margin in this one.

Metrics outlook | Prediction

SP+ projection: 89% Clemson (Clemson by 21.1)

FEI: 93.7% Clemson (Clemson by 21.9)

ESPN FPI: 95% Clemson (Clemson by 20.6)*

* Point spread from the FPI rankings, which project a margin based on a neutral field.

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