Countdown to Kickoff: 32 days
As our 100 Days to Kickoff continues on, we begin our opponent previews to provide a quick look at each of the teams coming up on our schedule this season. Each team has changed and provides new challenges than in years past, so this week is all about learning about those changes and learning exactly what Georgia Tech’s opponents have to offer.
The Jackets nearly pulled off a road victory at Heinz Field a year ago, but for the second straight year, they ended up losing to Pitt by way of a Chris Blewitt field goal in the final minute. It was deflating, as it was a game Tech could have won with even one or two better breaks (seriously, how often does a tipped pass well short of the end zone end in a 70-yard touchdown? only one other time comes to mind), but on paper it wasn’t a terrible loss. Pitt went 8-5 last season with wins over Clemson and Penn State, and only one of their losses was by more than a touchdown. With a couple lucky breaks of their own, they might have ended up winning the ACC Coastal crown.
On the bright side for Tech, Pitt is facing a massive rebuilding effort this season on both sides of the ball (and as the cherry on top, Blewitt is gone). Pat Narduzzi has recruited well and has some promising players coming back, but the team that he brings to Atlanta on Sept. 23 will look completely different from the ones that Tech has faced over the past couple years.
On offense, the most notable departure is star running back James Conner, who in his career had over 3700 rushing yards, 52 touchdowns, 5.6 yards per carry, and one magnificent victory over cancer. Starting quarterback Nate Peterman is gone after two successful seasons after he joined as a graduate transfer from Tennessee. Also gone are tight end Scott Orndoff and two key offensive linemen: left tackle Adam Bisnowaty, who won All-ACC accolades in 2015, and left guard Dorian Johnson, who was named a first-team All-American last season.
There was a key departure on the sideline as well. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada, a major reason for their offensive improvement last season, left to take the same job on LSU’s staff.
The defensive overhaul might be even heavier, as Pitt has to replace seven starters and several top reserves. The biggest losses are up front, where the Panthers must find a replacement for ace pass rusher Ejuan Price (13 sacks, 23 tackles for loss in 2016) and mammoth nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett. Among the other departures are the team’s top two tacklers last year, linebacker Matt Galambos and cornerback Ryan Lewis.
Pitt’s breakout star on offense last year was versatile receiver Quadree Henderson. The rising junior was deployed all over the place and actually did most of his damage on the ground, finishing with 631 rushing yards and averaging 10.5 yards per carry. Having Henderson and senior Jester Weah, the team’s leading receiver last year, should help the new quarterback ease into his role. The backfield will be anchored by bruising junior Qadre Ollison, who had over 1100 yards as a true freshman in 2015 (after Conner suffered a torn MCL). The new left tackle and guard, Brian O’Neill and Alex Officer, are among three very capable returning starters along the line, though at new positions.
The outlook is a bit more bleak on defense, particularly up front. End Rori Blair is the only returning starter along the line; the Panthers have virtually no experience at defensive tackle, and a sophomore and redshirt freshman are currently atop the depth chart. Junior linebacker Seun Idowu and senior cornerback Avonte Maddox (a three-year starter) return to anchor their units, but they too will mostly be playing alongside new starters with limited experience to date.
Pitt’s projected starter at quarterback is another graduate transfer: Max Browne, who entered last season as the starter for USC but lost the job to Sam Darnold after leading the Trojans to a 1-2 start. In Browne’s defense, his three starts included games against eventual SEC champion Alabama and Pac-12 champ Stanford—hardly ideal for a new starting quarterback. He’s a bit of a wild card, but Pitt could do much worse than a former five-star recruit with starting experience at a Power 5 program. Pitt also added former Texas offensive tackle Brandon Hodges, who will compete for the starting right tackle job.
Several incoming recruits have a shot to play out of the gate. The biggest names to watch are safety Paris Ford, a consensus top-100 prospect in an opportunity-rich secondary; tight end Charles Reeves, a four-star signee joining a team that returns almost no production at his position; and defensive tackle Kam Carter, a juco transfer from East Mississippi C.C. who has a chance to start right out of the gate.
As for the coaching staff, Canada’s replacement as OC is Shawn Watson, who is—perhaps appropriately—somewhat of an unknown. Watson was the architect of the prolific 2013 Louisville offense that finished in the top 25 in FEI and saw Teddy Bridgewater pass for nearly 4000 yards. A year later, he oversaw a Texas offense that ranked No. 113 in FBS in yards per game (out of 128 teams) and No. 110 in yards per play. He can produce a good offense with the right personnel in place, and he’s had more success with pocket passers rather than mobile quarterbacks, but only time will tell if Browne can thrive in Watson’s system.
Given how much their lineup has been overhauled, Pitt will be one of the most unpredictable teams in the country this fall. Questions abound: Can Browne play up to his potential in a new offense and setting? Will Watson’s scheme be creative enough to take advantage of Henderson’s skillset? Can anyone on the defensive line stop the run? Will the new starters in the secondary improve on the dismal performance of last year’s unit? Pitt’s final record this year will depend on how many of those are answered with a “yes,” and the final result could range anywhere from missing a bowl game to winning the Coastal Division.
The most likely outcome is somewhere in the middle. Given all the new pieces this fall and a tough early slate—back-to-back non-conference games against Penn State and Oklahoma State, followed by their ACC opener against Tech in Atlanta—Pitt will likely start slow. If they can string together some victories against a fairly soft midseason schedule and build momentum, the Panthers have the talent to pull off a late-season upset against Virginia Tech or Miami... but that hinges on a lot of things going right. Pitt is well-positioned to contend for the division crown for the next several years, but there are simply too many question marks this season to predict major success for them.
Projected record: 6-6 (4-4 ACC)