It is the No. 24 Panthers (7-4, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) that will take a national ranking and wearing the ACC Coastal Division crown into their meeting Saturday with the Hurricanes (6-5, 3-4 ACC), who will be looking to play the role of spoiler.
Kickoff at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., is 3:30 p.m. on ESPN.
Unlike the Panthers in 2017, the Hurricanes do have bowl eligibility sewn up, but their hopes of repeating as division champions vanished in the rubble of a four-game losing streak they finally ended with a 38-14 win over Virginia Tech last week.
They are looking to finish with a .500 conference record and gain a little momentum heading into the postseason.
“It’s big,” Miami coach Mark Richt said. “You don’t want to have a losing record in league play. It’s not good. Four-four would certainly feel a lot better than 3-5, I can tell you that.
“We can still finish with two victories, obviously. We’ve got to try to get one first, but yeah, that feels a lot better than not getting these last two. But let’s worry about Pitt now.”
Richt acknowledged the loss to Pitt last year that ended Miami’s winning streak at 10 games took away from the Hurricanes’ momentum heading into the ACC championship game, something Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi is trying to avoid in this game.
Narduzzi is not treating this one like, say, an NFL team that has clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs and resting players.
“We’re playing,” he said. “There’s nobody not playing.”
His Panthers will be looking at carrying on the momentum of a winning streak that has reached four games following a 3-4 start to the season that included a 38-35 loss to a North Carolina team that has won only once since then.
But there was never a specific point, Narduzzi said, where his players began thinking they had a chance to win the division.
“We never lost faith,” Narduzzi said. “Somebody else may have, OK, and I don’t point any fingers, but we never lost faith. So there’s never a point. That’s the God’s honest truth right there. We never lost faith.
“There’s going to be ups and downs. You can’t beat everybody. You can’t be perfect. But there’s — I don’t think anybody lost faith in this room, and we kept them together, and that’s how you have success.”
A resurgence in the running game was big. The Panthers are averaging over 247 yards a game rushing for the season and already have a 1,000-yard rusher in Qadree Ollison (1,106) and the potential for another in Darrin Hall (888).
After rushing for just 109 rushing yards in a loss to UCF, the Panthers had what was then a season-high 265 the next week in a win over Syracuse.
They dropped off to 116 in a five-point loss to Notre Dame but hit 484 against Duke, 254 against Virginia, 492 against Virginia Tech, and 154 against Wake Forest — all wins. Quarterback Kenny Picket made up the slack against Wake Forest with his biggest passing day — 316 yards.
“We know how capable he is,” Narduzzi said of Pickett, a sophomore who played in only four games (one start) as a freshman last year. “He’s accurate. He’s smooth. He’s still young. I think everybody wants instant gratification, and he’s a great football player.
“We’ve never lost faith in him.”
If Miami’s Richt lost faith in his quarterback, redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry, he apparently has regained it. Perry has started the last two games.
“He’s getting better and more and more confident,” Richt said after Perry passed for 171 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for a third in the win over Virginia Tech. “There were some times where he missed a guy here and there, but he managed the game well. He didn’t throw any picks, didn’t fumble the ball. You could just see his comfort level rising.
“One day, I believe you’ll see him really come into a zone, and he’s working to that right now.”