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Pitt fans, hope you like this roller coaster ride

The Panthers could be a top-40 team again this year. So could about nine of their 12 opponents. Close games are coming.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech
Pat Narduzzi
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

For some coaches, you can track progress by the teams on their schedule: you beat the bad teams, then you beat the decent teams, then you beat the good teams. It’s clean, orderly, and effective.

That’s how it worked for Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, for instance. Over his first five seasons, his Spartans went 21-0 against teams that finished short of bowl eligibility, and their success was determined by how they fared against bowl teams. From 2007-09, they went 10-17 against such teams. Then, in 2010-11, they went 13-5 and finished in the top 15 twice.

Pat Narduzzi’s had influences besides only Dantonio. The 52-year-old Rhode Island grad coached for eventual Northwestern coach Randy Walker and eventual Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner. But he connected with Dantonio at Cincinnati in 2004, and the two were joined at the hip for the next decade.

Narduzzi got his first head coaching job at Pitt three seasons ago, and wow, what a ride those three seasons have been. The first glance might seem orderly — the Panthers are 11-3 against teams that finished short of bowl eligibility and 10-14 against everyone else.

But these three seasons have featured the following:

  • Two near-losses to FCS Youngstown State.
  • Near-upsets of a 12-win Iowa and 11-win UNC in 2015, 10-win Oklahoma State and Virgnia Tech in 2016, and nine-win Virginia Tech in 2017.
  • Near-losses to three ACC teams that finished 4-8 or worse in 2015, and outright losses to three non-bowl teams in 2017.
  • Wins over eventual 2016 Big Ten champion Penn State, eventual 2016 national champion Clemson, and a 2017 Miami that was 10-0 at the time.

How exhausting. Narduzzi has averaged a boring 7-6, but has nearly lost twice to FCS opponents and has pulled off three of college football’s most memorable recent wins.

At least the 2017 team could blame youth and turnover for its ups and downs. After finishing in the S&P+ top 20 in 2016, they had to replace offensive coordinator Matt Canada, starting quarterback Nathan Peterman, 1,000-yard running back James Conner, a couple of all-league offensive linemen, and eight defensive starters. They were a bad team for the first half of the season and then an intriguing, unstable one.

Pitt in 2017

Category First 7 games Last 5 games
Category First 7 games Last 5 games
Record 2 W, 5 L 3 W, 2 L
Avg. score Opp 31, Pitt 23 Pitt 25, Opp 20
Avg. yards per play Opp 6.7, Pitt 5.1 Pitt 5.8, Opp 4.9
Avg. percentile performance 36% (38% off, 37% def) 67% (44% off, 72% def)
Avg. performance vs. S&P+ proj. -6.9 PPG +13.4 PPG

They went from playing like a bottom-40 team to a top-40 team. The offense was still sporadic, but the defense turned good. The win over Miami was a nice signpost of the improvement, but even if they’d fallen short in that game, the Panthers were already far ahead of where they’d been a couple of months prior.

And now that improved defense returns its top six linemen, top five linebackers, and six of eight defensive backs.

The offense is still in flux. Two of the three QBs who saw the field last year are gone, and while returning sophomore Kenny Pickett was at the helm for the Miami game, he’s still only seen real action in three games (and went 5-for-13 in one of them). Receiver Jester Weah, the only real big-play threat, is gone, and there are another couple of all-league linemen to replace as well.

Depth-wise, it feels Pitt is getting somewhere. This team is mostly made of Narduzzi recruits now, so perhaps his aggressive defensive scheme will stop feeling quite as risky.

Plus, hey, we don’t have to worry about inconsistent performances against lesser competition, because there’s almost no lesser competition on the schedule. After a week-one visit from FCS’ Albany, each of the remaining 11 opponents is projected 73rd or better in S&P+, and five are in the top 25. That tamps down the expected win total for what should be a top-50 Pitt, even if Pitt doesn’t really do “expected.”


2017 Pitt offensive radar

Coordinator Shawn Watson came with the reputation of a less-than-thrilling OC (his stint as Charlie Strong’s play-caller at Texas did not end well) but solid quarterbacks coach. It took him most of the season to figure out what he had.

  • USC transfer Max Browne began as Pitt’s starter, torched YSU and Rice (combined: 45-for-56, 550 yards, five touchdowns, no picks, 192.3 passer rating), and more or less bombed against everyone else (107.0 rating).
  • By midseason, sophomore Ben DiNucci had taken over. He was decent against UVA and UNC (130.0 rating) and less than decent against everyone else (114.4).

DiNucci was 4-for-8 with a pick against Virginia Tech, and, desperate for a jolt, Watson inserted Pickett.

The true freshman led a 73-yard touchdown drive, then completed a fourth-down slant to Weah for 74 yards with a minute left. Weah was tackled at the 1, and Pitt was stuffed on fourth-and-goal, but Watson had seen enough. He started Pickett against Miami, and Pickett more or less won the 2018 starting job that Friday afternoon, going 18-for-29 in the upset.

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh
Kenny Pickett
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pickett has only one career touchdown pass, but he’s the unquestioned leader. Ricky Town, a former blue-chipper with stops at USC and Arkansas, will back him up.

The emergence of running back Darrin Hall also made a pretty big difference in the 3-2 finish. He had just 31 carries during the Panthers’ 2-5 start but exploded for 72 carries and 486 yards over the next three games. His success rate (46.5 percent) dwarfed that of other Pitt backs, and he brought a new level of ball control to the table.

It’s a little scary, basing your offense around an inexperienced QB and a running back who’s had basically four good games in three years, but here we are.

And Hall could get a nice challenge from both senior Qadree Ollison and a trio of former four-star backs: sophomore A.J. Davis (16 carries, 40 yards last year), redshirt freshman Todd Sibley Jr., and true freshman Mychale Salahuddin.

Watson tried to establish the run on standard downs, but it didn’t really work until Hall took over. Hall and company will depend on a reasonably new line this time around. Two starters (honorable mention all-ACC guard Alex Bookser and center Jimmy Morrissey) return, but four players responsible for 98 career starts (including all-conference tackle and 2016 Piesman Trophy winner Brian O’Neill) have departed. At least a couple of contributors will have to emerge from a pile of Kent State transfer Alex Bookser, a couple of JUCO transfers, and a motherlode of five redshirt freshmen. No guarantees, but Pickett’s mobility (he had 21 non-sack carries for 107 yards) can’t hurt.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Duke
Rafael Araujo-Lopes
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Watson will also have to unearth a new play-maker in Weah’s absence. Weah averaged 17 yards per catch, and of the eight other players to catch at least 16 passes, none averaged more than 12.3. Senior Rafael Araujo-Lopes and juniors Maurice Ffrench and Aaron Matthews served as efficiency options but combined to average just 11.8 yards per catch.

A boost might come from Indiana transfer receiver Taysir Mack. The NCAA declared Mack eligible for 2018 in August, after he drew positive reviews from spring practice. [This preview has been updated to include Mack’s eligibility status.]

Narduzzi redshirted most of last year’s freshman class, and as with the line (and Sibley at RB), a redshirt freshman — be it Dontavius Butler-Jenkins, Darian Street, or Michael Smith — could play a key role at receiver. Watson might have to turn to a true freshman. There isn’t a lot of depth here.


2017 Pitt defensive radar

Narduzzi and Dantonio found one hell of a defensive rhythm in East Lansing. After averaging a Def. S&P+ ranking of 36th through their first four years there, Michigan State ranked eighth in 2011 and then second in both 2012 and 2013. It’s been jarring, then, to see Pitt struggle more on defense than offense.

The Panthers ranked 50th in 2015, then 62nd in 2016 and 75th last fall, but as mentioned up top, most of last year’s struggles came early. After allowing a ghastly 6.7 yards per play in the first seven games, they allowed just 4.9 over the last five.

The pass defense was the primary reason. Pitt allowed a 60 percent completion rate, 15 yards per catch, and a 151.0 passer rating over those first seven games, horrible numbers all around; the last five games, though: 50 percent, 12.9, and 119.5, respectively.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh
Dane Jackson
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback Avonte Maddox and safety Jordan Whitehead (both of whom were drafted in the fourth round of the NFL draft) were key pieces. But thanks to a significant run of injuries, plenty of other guys got experience — only two regulars played in all 12 games, and nine DBs made five or more tackles each.

Corner Dane Jackson (11 passes defensed, two tackles for loss) nearly matched Maddox’s disruption stats, and three returning safeties (senior Dennis Briggs, junior Damar Hamlin, sophomore Bricen Garner) made at least 27 tackles each. One of three sophomore cornerbacks — Therran Coleman, Jason Pinnock, or Damarri Mathis — will have to play a steadier role, but there’s lots of experience here and plenty of candidates for Maddox’s spot (or, for Jackson’s spot as he fills Maddox’s).

North Carolina v Pittsburgh
Oluwaseun Idowu (23) and Patrick Jones II (91)
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The front seven is loaded with experience. Talent? TBD. The Panthers ranked 100th in rushing success rate, 83rd in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and 80th in Adj. Sack Rate — there wasn’t much to love here. But the unit did improve as the year went on, and the linebackers appear sturdy.

Oluwaseun Idowu led with 11.5 tackles for loss, two other returnees (Saleem Brightwell and Elijah Zeise) had five each, and senior MLB Quintin Wirginis had four sacks in 2016 before missing last year with injury. He was a spring standout.

The line is at least more experienced; that can’t hurt. Two freshmen (end Rashad Weaver and tackle Keyshon Camp) and sophomore tackle Amir Watts were among Pitt’s top five tacklers up front, and while Weaver, Watts, and Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix each had between five and six TFLs, the line was below average from a havoc standpoint.

Another couple of freshmen (end Patrick Jones II and tackle Rashad Wheeler) played reserve roles, and this line was perhaps just too young to succeed. With so many guys back, Narduzzi didn’t panic and bring in any JUCOs — in fact, he signed seven freshman linemen, and I’m guessing he’ll redshirt most.

I’m curious what impact new coordinator Randy Bates has. Bates served as Pat Fitzgerald’s linebackers coach at Northwestern for 12 seasons and appears to be incredibly respected in the coaching community, but NU’s defenses are more flexible — bend-don’t-break, then aggressive in the red zone — than Narduzzi’s.

Special Teams

Pitt has been consistent, though not the right kind; they’ve ranked 73rd, 81st, and 82nd in Special Teams S&P+. And that was with Quadree Henderson returning kicks and punts.

Henderson’s gone, as is a solid punter in Ryan Winslow, so if Pitt is to improve, it’s on sophomore place-kicker Alex Kessman. Pitt ranked just 92nd in FG efficiency last year because while he showed a strong leg (8-for-13 on FGs longer than 40 yards), he was dreadfully inconsistent (3-for-6 on FGs under 40). He was also a freshman, so we’ll see.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Albany NR 28.8 95%
8-Sep Penn State 8 -13.1 23%
15-Sep Georgia Tech 53 3.6 58%
22-Sep at North Carolina 51 -1.7 46%
29-Sep at UCF 17 -11.7 25%
6-Oct Syracuse 71 7.7 67%
13-Oct at Notre Dame 7 -19.2 13%
27-Oct Duke 40 1.4 53%
2-Nov at Virginia 73 2.9 57%
10-Nov Virginia Tech 21 -4.4 40%
17-Nov at Wake Forest 34 -5.2 38%
24-Nov at Miami 13 -15.3 19%
Projected S&P+ Rk 45
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 58 / 45
Projected wins 5.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.4 (36)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 37 / 42
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / -1.3
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 68% (61%, 75%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.7 (-0.7)

I’m finding it pretty easy to talk myself into Pitt as a top-40 team again. The Panthers were close to that late in the year, and if Pickett goes from small-sample all-star to all-star, then the Panthers should be efficient offensively, even if there aren’t a ton of big plays. And since the defense returns most of the reasons for its late-year improvement, there’s reason for hope there, too.

This is an unforgiving schedule, though. S&P+ projects Pitt 45th, which seems safe, but the Panthers are still only projected favorites in five games, and three are relative tossups. Meanwhile, they are a 12-point underdog or worse against Penn State and in road trips to UCF, Notre Dame, and Miami.

This being Pitt, they’ll probably win at least one of those games, but they’ll have to win a majority of their tossups, without any slips in the easier games, to get back to bowl eligibility. S&P+ projects an average of 5.3 wins even with the top-50 ranking. Pickett might not only have to be good; he might have to be excellent.

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