PITTSBURGH – Pat Narduzzi still can't make up his mind.
Back in July, the longtime Pittsburgh coach thought the College Football Playoff should stand pat at four teams. Now, with the 20th-ranked Panthers assured of a spot in the ACC title game after wrapping up the Coastal Division title, he's not so sure.
“I’ve gone back and forth,” Narduzzi said.
With good reason. For the first time since the College Football Playoff was introduced in 2014, the ACC will be on the outside looking in when the final four is unveiled on Dec. 5 regardless of who walks off the field in Charlotte the night before with the league's championship trophy in tow, regardless of whether it's the Panthers, Wake Forest, Clemson or N.C. State.
All four enter the final weekend of the regular season with at least two losses. All four are well outside the CFP's top 10 with just two weeks to go.
While the wide-open nature of the ACC in 2021 may be good for the league over the long term — the ability for coaches to go into a recruit's living room and pitch the idea of playing in a league where a championship isn't Clemson's birthright but a realistic, tangible goal for multiple schools — in the short term, parity comes at a price. Literally and figuratively.
The ACC will take a modest $2 million hit for not placing a team in the CFP. It also won't reap the benefits of the weeks-long hype machine that leads up to the two semifinals on New Year's Eve and now must battle the perception that it's either in the midst of a “down” year or simply not that good in general, something that's dogged the wildly uneven PAC-12 for much of the CFP's existence.
Expanding the playoff to at least eight teams, with the winners of each of the Power Five's conference championships receiving an automatic bid regardless of their record, would make the hand-wringing over the ACC's status moot.
“I think (expansion) opens things up for other teams to have an opportunity to be in that (playoff) conversation for sure,” he said.
A conversation that — for this year at least — has largely gone on with the ACC failing to get a word in edgewise.
Clemson's early season struggles knocked them all the way out of the Top 25 for the first time in seven years. Wake Forest's flirtation with a perfect season has come crashing back to earth following losses to North Carolina and North Carolina State. Pitt's resume includes an emphatic home win over the Tigers but also a baffling home loss to Western Michigan in September that tempered any thoughts of crashing the CFP.
North Carolina was the preseason favorite in the Coastal Division. Now the Tar Heels need a win over the Wolfpack on Saturday to avoid a .500 season. Coach Mack Brown welcomes the league's unpredictability in 2021 but hopes it's just a one-off.
“We need to get it back where the winner goes to the playoff,” Brown said. “And that would be really, really important for us but Clemson’s got to stay strong. The rest of us need to keep stepping up.”
Whether being left out of the CFP — at least under its current formate — is a blip or a trend that won't be known for at least another year. Yet the Tigers, who have ripped off four straight wins since falling to Pitt on Oct. 23, fully expect to have their issues weaponized on the recruiting trail.
“Obviously, I think people will try and negative recruit against it, but we’re not worried about that,” Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "Once people get here on campus, they’ll feel and see and understand why we’re built to win championships for the long run.”
The Tigers still have a shot at getting a little revenge on the Panthers and locking up a New Year's Six Bowl. Losses by Wake Forest and N.C. State this weekend would give Clemson a seventh straight Atlantic Division title, something that seemed improbable a month ago.
Yes, it's strange for the Tigers to take a glance at the CFP rankings and not see that familiar orange-paw logo near the top.
“It’s driving us more than ever,” wide receiver Beau Collins said. "This season has been a good learning experience for us, coach (Dabo) Swinney as well. He’s told us he hasn’t coached a team this hard in a while. So this is just fueling us for next season and the years to come.”
The same goes for Pitt. The Panthers have broken free of the treadmill that's seen the program fluctuate between 5-8 wins during Narduzzi's tenure. A victory at Syracuse on Saturday would give Pitt 10 wins during the regular season for the first time in 40 years.
Yet Narduzzi can't help but think of “what if.” His team's two losses have come by a combined seven points. If Pitt's defense doesn't meltdown against Western Michigan and Miami, maybe the Panthers are perfect and clamoring for a spot in the CFP.
They aren't, but they're closer than they've ever been. Ditto Wake Forest and N.C. State. That's progress. And maybe in a few years, all the politicking and hand-wringing that's accompanies the playoff will vanish.
“Let’s gradually move to the 12 (team format) if we’re going to do it, just to make sure you don’t mess it up,” he said. “Once you go up to 12, you can’t go back to 8. I think that would be going backward.”
Something the ACC has done this season in hopes of taking a giant leap forward en masse down the road.
AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard, Hank Kurz Jr., Charles Odum, John Kekis and Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.
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