Pitt defensive lineman Aaron Donald is nominated for the Outland Trophy.
By Sam Werner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Each of the past two years, Pitt has had to win its final game of the season to clinch a bowl bid.
The Panthers would like to avoid setting up that scenario for a third year in a row, and they can do that with a win Saturday against Syracuse.
With a loss, Pitt (5-5, 2-4 ACC) would need to pull an upset against Miami in the season finale to ensure postseason play for the sixth consecutive year.
"There's going to be pressure next week against Miami, too," senior linebacker Shane Gordon said. "We owe Syracuse one from last year, so it'd be good to win."
One more win would give Pitt's seniors a chance to play in a bowl game other than the BBVA Compass Bowl, the only bowl they have played.
While it almost certainly won't be a fourth consecutive trip to Birmingham, Pitt's potential bowl destination remains up in the air. The Panthers would likely head to one of the lower-tier bowls with ACC tie-ins: The Music City Bowl (Nashville, Tenn.), the Advocare V100 Bowl (Shreveport, La.) or the Military Bowl (Annapolis, Md.).
The ACC already has eight teams with six wins, and as many as five more (including Pitt) could join them by the end of the season. That would bump the league over its allotted bowl spots, even if Florida State ends up playing in the BCS national championship game.
If that happens, Pitt could get bumped from the ACC's bowl lineup and be forced to take a bowl spot from a conference that cannot fill its allotment. The most likely scenario would be the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, which probably won't be able to fill its Big Ten slot.
Players, though, aren't concerned with a potential destination, but just getting there in the first place.
"It's going to mean a lot," cornerback Lafayette Pitts said. "Not just for me, but sending these seniors out in a bowl, that would be a good note for them."
Pitt lost out on its first chance to clinch a bowl spot last week with a 34-27 loss against North Carolina. Cornerback K'Waun Williams said everyone knows what's at stake this week, but it isn't a major rallying cry around the locker room.
"I think everybody around this building knows," he said. "Not much needs to be said. Everybody is just going about their business and just handling it right."
In addition to the exposure a bowl game would bring, the most significant benefit would be the 15 extra practices. Last year, the coaching staff used that time to begin preparations for this season.
TJ Clemmings, for instance, made the switch from defensive line to offensive line during bowl preparations, and he has started every game at right tackle this year.
"It's like another whole spring practice," right guard Matt Rotheram said. "I think it'd be huge. It'd be good for our young guys."
Pitt's opponent Saturday also will be fighting for its postseason life. The Orange (5-5) are in the same position as the Panthers: One win and they're in.
"We all want to go to a bowl game," Rotheram said. "This is a huge game for us. We're 5-5, they're 5-5. We're really looking forward to this one."
NOTE -- Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who has 22.5 tackles for loss this season, was named as a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy, which is given annually to the best offensive or defensive interior lineman. He is the only defensive player among the six semifinalists.
Donald leads the country in tackles for loss, with 2.3 per game. He also has 10 sacks. Both Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and North Carolina coach Larry Fedora have described him as "a one-man wrecking crew."
"Honestly, this has passed my expectations," Donald said. "I never thought I'd be up for the Outland Trophy or anything like this. I'm just truly honored."
Donald also is a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award, the Rotary Lombardi Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.
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