PITTSBURGH (AP) Nearly two months into the season, the ACC Coastal Division is still searching for clarity.
Virginia Tech and Pitt will have a chance to provide some when the 25th-ranked Hokies (5-2, 3-1) face the Panthers (5-2, 2-1) on Thursday night. The winner will exit no worse than tied for first in the loss column by the end of the weekend. The loser will need to win out - and probably get more than a little help - to earn a spot in the ACC title game.
''It's going to be a game of kind of we're in the mix in this division and it's going to be a championship-caliber football game,'' said Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster. ''If they want to stay in the hunt, they've got to win it. If we want to stay in the hunt, we need to win it.''
Something that doesn't tend to happen when the Panthers are on the other side of the line of scrimmage. The Hokies have never won at Heinz Field and dropped six of their last seven overall to Pitt, including a 17-13 loss in Blacksburg last year.
''I'm not really sure about the historical struggles, but what we're trying to do is forget all of that,'' Hokies defensive end Woody Barron said. ''Forget anything that's going on after the game, whatever that's happened before the game, and we're just trying our best to prepare.''
Virginia Tech bounced back from a baffling pratfall at Syracuse by handling Miami last Thursday to climb back into the Top 25. Now the Hokies face a different kind of test in the Panthers, who are averaging 38 points behind one of the most inventive offenses in the country.
In a pass-happy world, the offense designed by coordinator Matt Canada is a throwback. The Panthers can plow ahead with James Conner and Chawntez Moss or get out on the edges on jet sweeps by Quadree Henderson and dual threat Jordan Whitehead. Seven players have at least 20 rushing attempts, a testament Pitt's depth and also the numerous ways Canada tries to get them the ball.
''It's not like he walked up during the summer and said, `Hey, let's run this, let's try this,''' Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. ''He's a very creative guy and it's power football. It's zone football. You've seen a lot of two backs, a lot of movement around, maybe a lot of three backs if you count that guy in motion. So it's what I thought we would get when we hired Matt.''
CARDIAC CATS: Best to not leave early when the Panthers are playing. Five of Pitt's first seven games haven't been decided until the last minute, though the Panthers may have taken a significant step forward against Virginia two weeks ago, holding the Cavaliers to a field goal after halftime while pulling away for a 45-31 win.
ROAD WARRIORS: The Hokies have had mixed results on the road this season, winning in impressive fashion in monsoon-like conditions at North Carolina, but then laying an egg and losing the following week at Syracuse. Their history at Heinz Field and loss to the Orange are things sure to get their attention this week, but the Panthers are coming off a bye week and are likely to have some surprises Virginia Tech didn't see on film.
MR. VERSATILITY: Conner won the ACC Player of the Year Award in 2014 while scoring a school record 24 touchdowns but went back to his roots a bit against the Cavaliers. Conner - who moonlighted at defensive end as a freshman in 2013 - saw his first action on defense in three years against the Cavaliers and was credited with a quarterback hurry, the latest remarkable step in his return from a bout with cancer diagnosed last fall that threatened his career.
PASSING FANCY: Jerod Evans leads the ACC in passing efficiency with 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions, but he also fumbled three times early in the season. The Panthers share the sack lead in the conference with 25 and could cause Evans to make a mistake if they can get enough pressure in the backfield. When Pitt has been unable to get to the quarterback, however, the secondary hasn't put up much of a fight. The Panthers are 122nd in the country in passing yards allowed (298.9).
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.