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100 Days to Kickoff: Opponent Previews - Pittsburgh

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

The FTRS opponent preview series continues with the Pitt Panthers, who were slightly less mediocre than the other teams in the ACC Coastal a year ago and will attempt to be slightly less mediocre once again this fall.

Last Season in Review

Pitt took on one of the most daunting non-conference schedules in the nation, facing (and losing to) a trio of top-15 teams in Penn State, UCF, and Notre Dame. But in one of the Coastal-est seasons in Coastal Division history, when the smoke cleared and the chaos subsided, Pitt had managed to go 6-2 in conference play to secure their first division crown, earning a shot at dethroning undefeated Clemson in the ACC title game.

As for how that game went... well...

One rather ugly passing line aside, Pitt wasn’t exactly terrible last year—they just also weren’t anything special. It made them very appropriate winners of the 2018 Coastal Division.

Pat Narduzzi’s squad was a run-first and run-second team last year, and senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall each racked up 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns, taking some pressure off of young quarterback Kenny Pickett. Defensively, they were somewhat pedestrian, finishing at No. 53 in S&P+ and seeming to alternate excellent performances with utterly terrible ones.

Key Departures

RBs Qadre Ollison and Darrin Hall: As previously mentioned, Ollison and Hall each rushed for over 1,000 yards and 10 scores. That’s a ton of production to replace, particularly for a team that has relied so heavily on the run game. Pitt has a few candidates here, but none are truly proven commodities.

Most of the offensive line: Center Jimmy Morrissey is a two-year starter and one of the ACC’s most seasoned linemen. That experience will be crucial, because he’ll have two new guards and two new tackles alongside him as Pitt replaces a large group of departed seniors.

LB Seun Idowu: A former walk-on, Idowu emerged as a tackling machine at outside linebacker and recorded 75, 94, and 82 tackles over the past three years, respectively. He was also adept in coverage, and between his well-rounded skillset and his knowledge of the defense, this will be a big hole for Pitt to fill.

Key Returnees

QB Kenny Pickett: Pickett was extremely hot-and-cold a year ago, stringing together some good performances during Pitt’s late-season winning streak but showing little over the rest of the season. As he enters his second full season as a starter, he should at least take a couple steps forward—and the new OC hire (see next section) should help him out.

WRs Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack: These two have significant big-play potential. Ffrench is one of the fastest players on the roster and should continue to return kickoffs and get the occasional touch in the run game. Mack led the team last year with 557 receiving yards and averaged over 22 yards per reception. Their production in the passing game to date hasn’t exactly been overwhelming, but the talent is there.

DE Rashad Weaver: Weaver was a one-man wrecking crew in 2018, recording 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 14 tackles for loss. He’s likely to see more attention from offensive blockers this year, but Weaver is still poised for a big junior season, and Pitt has a deep group of defensive tackles to work alongside him.

S Damar Hamlin and CB Dane Jackson: Two key playmakers in the secondary are back. Hamlin was a force in run support, recording 76 tackles a year ago, and Jackson led the team with 14 pass breakups and four forced fumbles. If the line play improves—which is entirely possible with the players returning—then it could enable the secondary to wreak more havoc.


Offensive Coordinator Mark Whipple: Whipple should be an upgrade from the departed Shawn Watson. He most recently spent five years as the head coach at UMass, where he produced a 1,000-yard receiver in four of his five seasons (including Andy Isabella’s 102 catches for 1,698 yards this past season) and three of his teams averaged 297 or more passing yards per game. The hire is a clear signal that Narduzzi wants more out of the passing game, and that should be reflected in Whipple’s playcalling.

OL Nolan Ulizio: With depth at offensive tackle completely up in the air, Ulizio—a graduate transfer from Michigan with a few starts under his belt—was a crucial addition. He has a good chance to start at one of the tackle spots in Week 1.

LB Kylan Johnson: Pitt’s other inbound graduate transfer comes from Florida, where he had 77 tackles over three seasons. It’s entirely possible that Johnson gets the nod at outside linebacker, but Pitt has several sophomore and junior linebackers who are jockeying for playing time.

2019 Outlook

Predicting how any team in the Coastal will fare has always been a fool’s errand, and that holds true for the 2019 Pitt squad. The questions seem endless: How will Pickett respond to being the focal point of a more pass-happy offense? Which running backs will step up to fill the void? Can the offensive line replace four starters and build some depth? How much will the losses at linebacker hurt? Do they have enough depth on defense?

It feels like this team could easily end up anywhere between 8-4 and 4-8. With the division looking just as wide open as it was last year, the former record might be enough to win them the division as long as five or six of those wins are in ACC play. The most realistic result is probably somewhere in the middle, but all it would take are a couple lucky breaks and some player development (or lack thereof) to swing the pendulum one way or the other.

Of course, no team has repeated as Coastal Division champs since Virginia Tech in 2010 and 2011. On top of that, there have been six division winners in the past six years, which would suggest that it’s Virginia’s turn. But what would embody Coastal Chaos more than Pitt pulling the rug out from under Virginia to steal the division twice in a row? Anything is possible.