If ever you desired proof that college football is a chaos machine, devouring inputs of strategy and careful planning to spit out a random-number-generated result, look no further than these next seven words that are a real thing that happened: Pitt Panthers, 2018 ACC Coastal Division champions.
Last Year: 7-7 (6-2 ACC)
At the end of September, Pitt sat at an uninspiring 2-3. A season-opening win against FCS Albany was nice enough but the memory was soon subsumed by a 51-6 dismantling at the hands of Penn State. Likewise for the start of ACC play: a well-contested 24-19 victory over Georgia Tech to kick things off, but a loss to lowly UNC-Chapel Hill close behind. When defending national champs UCF sent Pitt home from Orlando with a 45-14 loss, the season’s future glory would have seemed like a pipe dream.
But October and November were exceedingly kind to the Fightin’ Narduzziacs: an overtime win against Syracuse, a close loss at #5 Notre Dame, then four straight victories in conference. A 35-13 decision over Wake Forest clinched the division, notwithstanding the next week’s loss at Miami. Pitt put up a respectable 10 points against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game before dropping the Sun Bowl to Stanford, 14-13.
Last Time: Pitt 23, UVA 13
One of those November wins was a rain-soaked victory at Scott Stadium that put Pitt in the Coastal Division driver’s seat. Injuries along the defensive line exposed UVA’s depth issues and the Panthers exploited the resulting miscommunications to frequently find creases for long running lanes. Darrin Hall ran for touchdowns of 41 and 75 yards—including a back-breaker after the Hoos got within one in the fourth quarter—en route to a 229-yard day; Kenny Pickett needed to throw for all of 61 yards for Pitt to leave Charlottesville with a win. The UVA running game never got started: Jordan Ellis accrued 46 yards on just 10 carries, but Bryce Perkins’ minus-7 yards on 15 carries represented by far his worst rushing performance of the season.
Comings and Goings
Thankfully, Darrin Hall is gone. So is Qadree Ollison. Hall and Ollison combined for more than 2,300 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2018. Four of the offensive linemen who started against UVA are also gone, as are half the defensive line, two-thirds of the linebackers, and half the defensive backfield. That’s a LOT.
But there’s talent to step up, especially in the offensive backfield. Mychale Salahuddin was the star of Pitt’s 2018 recruiting class as a four-star running back from Woodson in Washington, DC. The 2017 class featured two more four-star running backs in Todd Sibley and A.J. Davis. Davis has the most experience of the three, but Narduzzi could roll out a three-headed monster from the running back stable.
But is Pitt going to feature something other than the ground-and-pound offense we’ve come to know and hate? Narduzzi fired offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and replaced him with UMass passing guru Mark Whipple. In 2018, Whipple’s Minutemen were the 26th most pass-happy team (.99 rush attempts per pass attempt) in college football; in 2017, they were 25th. Those same two years, Pitt was 119th (1.8 rushes per pass in 2018) and 77th (1.27 in 2017).
Which would mean Pitt is putting its offensive fate in the hands of Kenny Pickett, who led a passing attack in 2018 that looked like this:
Good luck with that.
This Time: UVA @ Pitt (August 31)
If Pitt really is rolling out a new offense, it makes a week one matchup all the more unpredictable. Will the new wrinkles make it difficult for UVA to prepare, without last year’s game film to rely on? Or will the subtleties of a new system cause some growing pains for the Panthers?
Going pass-heavy should play into the hands of a UVA defensive backfield that is being heralded as one of the nation’s best. Virginia’s added depth and experience along the defensive line should also help the Hoos improve if Pitt sticks with a ground-based attack similar to last season’s.
Whatever kind of offense we see in just a few weeks, Virginia will need to bring its A-game to triumph in the Hoos’ ACC Network television debut. A win at Pitt would be a strong signal that UVA is ready for primetime in 2019.