Heather DinichESPN Senior Writer
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi conceded he has no answer, no idea why, over the past two years, the Panthers have knocked off three different playoff contenders in the midst of otherwise mediocre seasons.
“I wish I knew,” he said. “If I knew, I’d plug that in and get it going.”
Pitt’s penchant for derailing top opponents is real, and No. 13 Penn State — which travels to Heinz Field on Saturday — can attest to it. In 2016, the year Penn State won the Big Ten but still finished fifth in the selection committee’s final ranking, the Nittany Lions lost to Pitt 42-39 — in Week 2. That same season, Pitt went to No. 2 Clemson and beat the Tigers 43-42, Clemson’s only loss in what would be a 14-win, national championship season.
Last season, Miami had climbed as high as No. 2 in the committee’s top 25 before losing at Pitt on a Friday in what was the final game of the regular season.
“It’s going to be a tough place to play,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of Heinz Field. “I think we’ll get really good support. I think our fans will show up strong as well. But it’s a tough place to play, there’s no doubt about it. So we have to be ready for that.”
While Clemson’s trip to Texas A&M will have the biggest impact on the playoff race this weekend, the rest of the schedule is worth watching because of how vulnerable some teams looked in Week 1, and how quickly the big picture can change with a few upsets.
These aren’t trap games — No. 3 Georgia certainly isn’t overlooking No. 24 South Carolina, and No. 15 Michigan State knows better than to take Arizona State lightly — but it’s a week capable of featuring some sneaky-good games in which the favorites should be guarded in their optimism.
“Your kids certainly have confidence in big games,” Narduzzi said. “If you had played four big games in your career as a football player and you played four top-10, top-15 teams and you lost every one of them, I think your kids would kind of go, ‘Oh gosh, here we go again.’ In retrospect, our kids will be saying, ‘OK, here we go again, let’s go get this one again.’ I think we’re used to playing in some big games.”
What might not appear to be a big game now could have a lasting impact later. Here’s where Week 2 could shift the landscape the most.
1. SEC East
No. 24 South Carolina will have home-field advantage against No. 3 Georgia in a game that will go a long way in determining the SEC East winner.
“When you are in somebody’s own turf,” Georgia defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said, “the odds are stacked against you and it is kind of a statement to be able to come out there and handle your business.”
After finishing No. 3 last season and losing in overtime to Alabama in the national title game, expectations are soaring for Georgia to “handle business” all season long. Georgia is favored by ESPN’s Football Power Index to win every game it plays this season, but what if the Bulldogs lose Saturday? The good news is that Georgia has division crossover games against LSU and Auburn, two teams that looked very strong in Week 1 victories and could help the Bulldogs compensate for a loss to South Carolina. Should Georgia lose to South Carolina and then win out, its résumé could be strong enough to finish in the top four without winning the East. It would put extreme pressure on the Bulldogs, though, to run the table against what is currently the 28th-hardest remaining strength of schedule.
The Gamecocks snuck into the Associated Press top 25 this week, but was that because the new, up-tempo offense looked good in a lopsided 49-15 win against overmatched Coastal Carolina? Or was it because Texas and Florida State looked so bad they dropped out of the top 25? Probably a little of both, but the Gamecocks will undoubtedly have a more difficult day against Georgia’s defense.
Speaking of sneaking into the top 25, don’t forget about No. 25 Florida, which hosts Kentucky in another SEC East matchup. If Florida wins, and Georgia loses, we could be looking at a legitimate three-team race for the SEC East title among Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
2. Big Ten East
After underwhelming, season-opening victories by both Penn State and Michigan State, the jury is still out on how seriously to take both as playoff contenders. Nonconference Power 5 wins this weekend would help both — as well as the entire division — but a loss by either would reset the Big Ten playoff picture to Ohio State and Wisconsin again. (Yes, the Buckeyes have a Big Ten East opponent in Rutgers this week, but the Scarlet Knights still haven’t quite earned the status that would make that game worthy of concern for Ohio State.) What should be of concern is Penn State’s nonconference schedule, which pits the Nittany Lions against three unranked opponents in Appalachian State, Pitt and Kent State. Saturday is Penn State’s lone chance at a Power 5 nonconference win. It’s a game the Nittany Lions are favored to win by 81.6 percent, according to FPI. Michigan State is in a similar situation, with Utah State and Central Michigan rounding out its nonconference schedule along with Saturday’s game at Arizona State. Both PSU and MSU are on the road with something to prove.
After watching Louisville, Miami and Florida State flop in Week 1, it’s even more evident that Clemson is shouldering the entire league’s playoff hopes. The Tigers have lost before and still advanced to the playoff, but in 2016, when Clemson lost to Pitt, it had earned victories against Florida State (which was ranked No. 12), and Louisville, which was ranked No. 3 at the time. If the rest of the ACC continues to struggle, it won’t help Clemson’s strength of schedule in the eyes of the committee. Clemson fans, if they can bring themselves to do it, should pay attention to rival South Carolina this week. Because if the Tigers lose to Texas A&M, they will also likely lose their best shot to earn a statement win against a highly ranked opponent — unless South Carolina can make a legitimate run for the SEC East.
4. Washington’s top pursuer
Is it No. 10 Stanford? Or is it No. 17 USC? We’ll find out Saturday. In spite of Washington’s loss to Auburn, the Huskies remain the Pac-12’s best hope at top-four finish … for now. If USC can survive back-to-back road trips to Stanford and then Texas with a freshman quarterback, the narrative could quickly change. JT Daniels had a strong debut in the 43-21 win over UNLV, but the learning curve will be sharp against the Cardinal.