Pitt and Syracuse Have had Vastly Different Fortunes in the ACC

Pitt football begins an unusual Atlantic Coast Conference season this weekend. There will be 10 games instead of the typical eight. The previously scheduled game against Notre Dame will now count in the ACC standings after the Fighting Irish joined the conference on a temporary basis. With no divisions they will not be playing traditional Coastal rivals Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia. However, they will be playing multiple Atlantic division opponents that they typically see only once every 6 years. For example, on October 3 the Panthers will square off against North Carolina State, 4 years before they were supposed to next play each other in 2024. With all of this uncertainty surrounding the 2020 college football season (and the world at large), it’s actually something of a comfort that the Panthers will open this abnormal ACC season against their old friend Syracuse.

Pitt fans would universally consider Penn State and West Virginia their primary rivals. However, it’s Syracuse who has actually appeared on the Panthers’ schedule more frequently during the 21st century. The two teams have met every year since 1955. Back then both teams were independents, but they’ve since shifted conference affiliations in step with each other. Both were inaugural members of the Big East football conference in 1991. The two schools’ exit in advance of the 2013 season was also the initial domino that precipitated the league’s dissolution. Despite entering the conference together, since joining the ACC Pitt and Syracuse have had drastically different fortunes in their new home.

By almost any metric you look at, Pitt has been a far superior team to their old Big East foes since 2013. Admittedly Pitt hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire, winning only 54% of their games (49-42) over this period. However Syracuse is on the other side of .500, having only won 43% of their games (43%). The difference is even starker if you cut out the non-conference games. With Pitt’s unfortunate habit of scheduling tough games out of conference, their ACC winning percentage is actually the same as their overall mark (31-26, 54%). Meanwhile, Syracuse has only come out on top against their ACC competition 33% of the time (19-38).

The same story is told when you compare points per game. Once again, while Pitt’s figures aren’t anything special, they are still above average and much better than the unfortunate numbers you see from the Orange.

OverallPoints per GameOpp. Points per GameDifference
ConferencePoints per GameOpp. Points per GameDifference

The most striking thing to me about these numbers is that, on average, Syracuse’s ACC opponents are outscoring them by more than a touchdown per game. 

I’m going to pause here because I can hear any Syracuse fans reading this screaming about how they play in a much more difficult division. So in the interest of considering all relevant information, let’s take a look at the divisions.

Pitt and Syracuse were placed in the Coastal and Atlantic divisions respectively upon joining the ACC. However, they were designated as permanent cross-division rivals, keeping their annual matchup intact. This was likely due to a combination of history, geography, and keeping things simple with a new scheduling format being required with the conference expansion. I’m not going to argue against the popular consensus that the Atlantic division has been the better division. The winner of the ACC Championship Game has come from that division for 9 straight seasons. A streak that predates