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5 Storylines for Clemson Heading into Road Game at Pitt

Clemson visits No. 23 Pittsburgh on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. for the first time in school history.

Clemson hits the road for the second consecutive week in ACC play when the Tigers take on No. 23 Pittsburgh on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. 

The Panthers (5-1, 4-0 ACC) are the highest-scoring team in the conference while Clemson (4-2, 3-1) is the lowest, but the Tigers do have a top-notch defense to combat the aerial attack of Kenny Pickett and company. 

The Tigers are coming off a 17-14 escape at Syracuse last Friday while Pitt held Virginia Tech in check with a 28-7 victory in Blacksburg. 

Here are five storylines heading into their conference showdown:


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Clemson Is Going Bowling

After a 9-3 regular season, the Clemson Tigers are heading to Orlando to play Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl.

1. Slowing Pickett down: It sounds good in theory but it's going to be a tall task, even for a Tiger defense that ranks in the top-35 in pass defense and has a pass-rush led by Xavier Thomas, one of the midseason standouts in the league. But Pickett has averaged 322 yards per game through the air with a completion percentage of 69.8. He's tossed 21 touchdowns to just one interception. This isn't the same guy who was 4-of-16 against the Tigers in the 2018 ACC title game. Pickett is a baller now. 

2. Who's playing?: Saturday (or Friday) surprises have become the norm for Clemson. For the last three games, there have been unexpected players on the unavailability list, like Will Putnam, Hunter Rayburn and E.J. Williams. Throw in Andrew Booth Jr. who was unable to play at Syracuse but was on the sideline, and the hits just keep on coming. This is a week where he'll be needed as much as anybody, and Clemson is still struggling to execute on the offensive line. The Tigers, a triage unit, need all hands on deck against this opponent. 

3. New road environment: Dabo Swinney loves consistency. He likes knowing all the variables and logistics his team will face each and every week. Some of that goes out the window this week as Clemson has never played at Heinz Field, also home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's hard to believe, but despite the Panthers being in the ACC since 2013, they've never hosted the Tigers. This will be just their fifth meeting with three of the previous ones coming as members of the same conference. This road venue might not be as raucous as NC State or have the odd noise like Syracuse, but there are a lot of unknowns this week. 

4. Role reversal: Back in 2016, Clemson was undefeated and on its way to its second College Football Playoff when all of a sudden it wasn't. And then it was again. The Tigers were upset 43-42 at Memorial Stadium. The Panthers used NFL back James Conner and a shovel pass that still has Brent Venables waking up in cold sweats to shock the world. The thing is, several other teams around Clemson in the rankings lost, and all was not lost. The Tigers galvanized after their defeat and used that to spur not just a run back into the playoff but all the way to an upset win over Alabama to claim their second national championship in league history. Now it's Clemson looking to play spoiler and hurt Pitt's chances of winning the ACC as a one-loss team and having a shot at the CFP.

5. Offensive execution: There was a lack of this in the win at Syracuse. The most glaring mistake was when three offensive linemen failed to block an Orange defender on a screen pass, and it was thwarted instead of going for a huge gain. There were dropped passes and bad penalties. It's not a matter of Clemson becoming explosive anymore. That just doesn't seem to be in the cards for this unit, although quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei did throw a deep pass on a touchdown to Joseph Ngata. But it's all about cleaning up mistakes because the Tigers can't make up for them with chunk yards that change field position and/or put points on the board.