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Kovacevic: Pitt-to-ACC never looked better

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 10:40 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston picks up yardage between Pitt's Shane Gordon and Aaron Donald during the first quarter Monday, Sept. 2, 2013 at Heinz Field.

It's a long way from Heinz Field to an NCAA football championship, to put it mildly. But it's no longer a path that's unprecedented.

Jameis Winston took his first collegiate snap here, remember?

It was on the second of September, on our North Shore, that Florida State's freshman phenom did pretty much whatever he pleased in a 41-13 pounding of Pitt. He was a video-game-like 25 of 27 passing for 356 yards with five touchdowns. He was breathtaking. Those of us in the house just had to be blown away by the whole scene, not only because it made for a powerfully humbling introduction for the Panthers to the ACC but also because … wow, that kid was good.

The whole nation found out how good Monday night in Pasadena, when Winston gracefully guided Florida State for one final drive to beat Auburn, 34-31.

It was absolute brilliance.

And it began here.

I write this not because Pittsburgh has any other connection to Winston or the Seminoles. Or certainly not because Pitt had anything in common beyond a conference patch. One doesn't get much further from winner-takes-all at the Rose Bowl than Bowling Green at the Pizza Bowl.

No, I write it because, at least for me, Florida State's performance formally sealed the deal that Pitt made a fantastic move to the ACC.

And not surprisingly, when I reached out Wednesday to Steve Pederson, the athletic director who made it happen through no small amount of heat, he heartily agreed: “Oh, we're absolutely thrilled. And it's not just Florida State.”

He cited, fairly, Clemson taking out Ohio State in the Orange Bowl after the Buckeyes had spent all fall as national title contenders. And Duke, which lost to Pitt, gave Texas A&M all it could handle in the Chick-fil-A Bowl before Johnny Manziel did his thing.

“Internally, we felt really proud of the move back when it was initiated two years ago,” Pederson continued. “But I know there were people who had doubts about what might or might not happen.”

Not hearing that now, huh?

All the chatter just last summer was that, once the NCAA finally gets to a meaningful playoff format, the ACC would be the fifth wheel behind the SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12. Few could conceive of a playoff among conference champions that would include a berth — automatic or otherwise — for the ACC.

Moreover, because Florida State in particular was viewed as essential, that same chatter had the Seminoles bolting the ACC sooner rather than later.

But that's when ACC commissioner John Swofford and school presidents stepped up with a financial package aimed — though they wouldn't describe it this way — at keeping Florida State in the fold. And what they produced was as close to ironclad as anything gets in college athletics.

Which is why, shortly after the Seminoles' victory Monday, Wofford told reporters: “It's a great moment for Florida State, first and foremost, but also for our conference.”

Jimbo Fisher got into the act, too: “This conference has a great group of coaches and players. If you look at the quality of teams, the quality of players we produce, we're right behind the SEC in everything we do. Hopefully, now, we get a little more respect.”

And check this out from Syracuse coach Scott Shafer a couple days ago: “I really believe in the next five to 10 years, it'll be us and the SEC.”

Wow. We'll see on that.

As for Pitt, there are many miles to go under Paul Chryst. This was a 7-6 team, and the steps figure to be small.

But it still shouldn't go unappreciated that 2013 did cement that Pitt is at least in the right place.

“The ACC qualified two teams for BCS bowls this year and won both, including the national title game. Eleven of the 14 teams played in bowls,” Chryst said matter-of-factly Wednesday. “This is an outstanding football league that provides us with great competition, bowl opportunities and recruiting territories.”

“What I feel more than anything is that it's good for our program to know what our long-term goals are, and that all comes through the ACC now,” Pederson said. “If you think about it, we haven't really been at this point for years. We didn't know what would happen to the Big East, what would happen to the college landscape. And that's really no way to live.”

And now?

“Now, we just play games. This is the fun part.”

Well, for now, the fun will be Jamie Dixon and Mike Krzyzewski sharing a courtside at the Pete later this month. But at least football's found the right formation.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic

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