The ACC Coastal is the most unpredictable division in college football, so it should come as no surprise that Pitt emerged late in the season to win it. Pitt is now the sixth different team over the past six years to represent the Coastal in the ACC championship game. The task, of course, is not an easy one: No. 2 Clemson awaits in Charlotte, North Carolina. But there is a little bit of history between the two schools, history Dabo Swinney probably wants to forget. In 2016, Pitt went on the road as 21-point underdogs and beat Clemson 43-42 in Death Valley.
Unlike in Pitt’s case, Northwestern’s division was considered anything but wide open to begin the year. Wisconsin, the West Division’s heavyweight, had played in five of the previous seven Big Ten title games. Despite winning their last seven league games in 2017, the Wildcats were picked to finish anywhere between second and sixth in their division heading into the season. No one would have predicted that Pat Fitzgerald & Co. would have locked up a trip to Indianapolis two weeks before the end of the regular season. Fitzgerald decided to keep some of his starters on the sideline in their season finale and said he has used some extra time to do advance planning for possible championship game opponents. Northwestern could use the leg up against Ohio State. The Buckeyes have won 30 of the past 31 meetings between the two schools dating back to 1972.
Here’s how the most unlikely conference title game participants found their way to division titles:
Preseason prediction: Fifth in ACC preseason media poll; 2 percent chance of winning ACC Coastal, per FPI
Stumbling out of the gate: Pitt played perhaps the most difficult nonconference schedule in the nation, with games against Penn State and UCF in September. The Panthers got routed in both, unraveling in the second half against the rival Nittany Lions to lose 51-6, then falling two weeks later to UCF 45-14. Squeezed in between was an inexplicable loss to North Carolina, the worst team in the Coastal Division. That turned out to be North Carolina’s only win in ACC play. Pitt opened the season 2-3. To start October, ESPN FPI gave the Panthers a 0.1 percent chance to win the Coastal.
So you’re saying there’s a chance: Pitt went on the road to play Notre Dame, and not many people gave the Panthers a shot. Pitt led going into the fourth quarter before losing 19-14. Even though they lost, something sparked in the Panthers. They reeled off four straight wins, but none bigger than a Friday night nationally televised game at then-No. 25 Virginia. Heading into their matchup, Virginia was the FPI favorite to win the Coastal. But Pitt dominated, rushing for 254 yards while holding the Cavaliers to just 44 on the ground. Pitt, always a ground-and-pound team, started to dominate in the trenches on both offense and defense, and that momentum carried it through its next several victories.
Sealing the deal: Miami entered the season favored to repeat as Coastal Division champions, but four straight conference losses ended any shot the Hurricanes had to make it back to the ACC championship game. Virginia Tech, picked to finish No. 2 in the division, also struggled thanks to several key injuries, including that of quarterback Josh Jackson. Once Pitt beat Virginia, the Panthers had the upper hand: Win and they would be in. Pitt followed up its victory over the Cavaliers with a big win against Virginia Tech, rushing for 492 yards and six touchdowns, and clinched the Coastal the following week with a victory over Wake Forest.
Preseason prediction: 10 percent chance of winning Big Ten West, per FPI
Stumbling out of the gate: Ryan Field has seen some sleepy starts before, but September was rough for the Wildcats by any standard. After failing to score on the final 13 possessions of a 21-7 loss to Duke in Week 2, Northwestern bottomed out the following week with a 39-34 loss to a mediocre Akron team. The Zips finished with only four wins this season, but they managed to score more points at Northwestern than against any other FBS opponent this season. To add injury to insult, star running back Jeremy Larkin announced his retirement from football a week later due to a medical situation that made it unsafe for him to continue playing.
So you’re saying there’s a chance: An open week in the schedule gave Northwestern’s players a chance to regroup and recommit to turning the season around after the loss to Akron. After a couple of players-only meetings, the Wildcats played better in a close loss to Michigan, then rolled off seven straight league wins. Fitzgerald said erasing a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter against Nebraska on Oct. 13 marked a turning point in the team’s confidence. Two weeks later, the Wildcats held Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor to less than 50 rushing yards while beating the Badgers by 14. That victory made it clear that the ugly nonconference results were a thing of the past and Northwestern was a contender to win a surprisingly open division.
Sealing the deal: In the fourth quarter of a cold slugfest of a game at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium, Northwestern receiver Bennett Skowronek laid out to catch a 32-yard pass in the end zone and give his team a 14-10 lead on the road. The stingy Wildcats defense, which allowed only 64 rushing yards in the win, forced two more fumbles after Skowronek’s touchdown to snuff out any chance of a Hawkeyes comeback. Fitzgerald gathered his team on the field after time expired. Minutes earlier a staff member told him that both Wisconsin and Purdue had lost their games that day, which meant Fitzgerald got to tell his players that they had officially punched their ticket to Indianapolis before they even left the field at Iowa. With two games left on the schedule and less than two months removed from an embarrassing loss to a mediocre MAC school, Northwestern had pulled off one of the most unlikely turnarounds of the 2018 season.