PITTSBURGH — Pat Narduzzi still can't make up his mind.
Back in July, the longtime Pittsburgh Panthers coach thought the College Football Playoff field should stand pat at four teams. Now, with his team No. 17 in the latest CFP rankings released Tuesday night but assured of a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game after wrapping up the Coastal Division title, he's not so sure.
"I've gone back and forth," Narduzzi said.
With good reason. For the first time since a playoff was introduced to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2014, the ACC will be on the outside looking in when the final four are unveiled Dec. 5.
That will be true regardless of who walks off the field the night before with the league's championship trophy in tow, whether it's the Panthers or their opponent. Six-time reigning ACC champion Clemson, North Carolina State and Wake Forest remain in contention for the Atlantic Division title and the right to face Pitt at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.
All four of those teams enter this final weekend of the regular season with at least two losses. All four are well outside the CFP's top 10.
The wide-open nature of the ACC in 2021 may be good for the league over the long term, because it could allow coaches to go into a recruit's living room and pitch the idea of playing in a conference where a championship isn't Clemson's birthright but a realistic, tangible goal for multiple schools. In the short term, parity comes at a price, both literally and figuratively.
The ACC will take a modest $2 million hit for not placing a team in the CFP. However, it also won't reap the benefits of the weeks of hype that lead up to the two semifinals on New Year's Eve, and it also must battle the perception that it's either experiencing a down year or simply not that good in general, something that has dogged the wildly uneven Pac-12 for much of the CFP's existence.
Expanding the playoff to at least eight teams, with the winners of each of the Power Five conference championships receiving an automatic bid regardless of their records, would make the hand-wringing over the ACC's status moot.
"I think it opens things up for other teams to have an opportunity to be in that conversation for sure," Narduzzi said.
For this year at least, that playoff conversation — both by the public and the CFP selection committee as it ranks teams leading up to the big reveal — has largely gone on with the ACC failing to get a word in edgewise.
Clemson's early struggles knocked the Tigers all the way out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in seven years. Wake Forest's flirtation with soaring to a perfect season crashed with losses to North Carolina — a nonconference game in this case — and N.C. State. Pitt's resumé includes an emphatic home win over the Tigers but also a baffling nonconference home loss to Western Michigan in September that tempered any thoughts of crashing the CFP.
North Carolina was the preseason favorite in the Coastal Division, but now the Tar Heels need a win over N.C. State on Saturday to avoid a .500 season. Coach Mack Brown welcomes the league's unpredictability in 2021 but hopes it's a one-off situation as it relates to the CFP.
"We need to get it back where the winner goes to the playoff," said Brown, in the third season of his second stint with the Heels after previously leading them from 1988 to 1997. "And that would be really, really important for us, but Clemson's got to stay strong. The rest of us need to keep stepping up."
Whether being left out of the CFP — at least under its current format — is a blip or a trend won't be known for at least another year. Yet the Tigers, who have ripped off four straight wins since falling to Pitt on Oct. 23, fully expect to have their challenges weaponized by their competition on the recruiting trail.
"Obviously, I think people will try and negative recruit against it, but we're not worried about that," Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "Once people get here on campus, they'll feel and see and understand why we're built to win championships for the long run."
The Tigers still have a shot at getting a little revenge on the Panthers and locking up a New Year's Six Bowl. Losses by N.C. State and Wake Forest this weekend would give Clemson a seventh straight Atlantic Division title, something that seemed improbable a month ago. And yet it's simply strange for coach Dabo Swinney's team to take a glance at the CFP rankings and not see that familiar orange paw logo near the top.
"It's driving us more than ever," wide receiver Beau Collins said. "This season has been a good learning experience for us — Coach Swinney as well. He's told us he hasn't coached a team this hard in a while. So this is just fueling us for next season and the years to come."
The same goes for Pitt. The Panthers have broken free of the treadmill in which the program has fluctuated from five to eight wins during Narduzzi's tenure. A victory at Syracuse on Saturday would give Pitt 10 wins during the regular season for the first time in 40 years.
Yet Narduzzi can't help but think of what might have been. His team's two losses have come by a combined seven points. If Pitt's defense didn't melt down against Western Michigan and Miami, maybe the Panthers are perfect and clamoring for a spot in the CFP.
They aren't, but they're closer than they've ever been; the same is true for N.C. State and Wake Forest. That's progress. And maybe in a few years, all the politicking and hand-wringing that's accompanies the playoff will vanish. Expansion is in the works, although the details are far from settled with some resistance to making a big jump from four to 12.
"Let's gradually move to the 12, if we're going to do it, just to make sure you don't mess it up," Narduzzi said. "Once you go up to 12, you can't go back to eight. I think that would be going backward."
That's something the ACC has done this season in hopes of taking a giant leap forward down the road.