No. 36 Pittsburgh
Following a second-straight eight-win season that included wins over two of the top 10 teams in the country, head coach Pat Narduzzi is excited but nervous for 2017, touting their talent while expressing concerns over the Panthers' inexperience at several positions.
"My biggest concern are our young guys stepping up and filling those roles and the leadership roles," he said this summer. "A year ago, we had 21 really good seniors who were impressive. To not have those guys with us is a void. So, we're looking for those new seniors."
2016 Record: 8-5 (5-3, ACC)
Four close losses prevented Pitt from reaching nine wins — or more — for the first time since 2009. They started 2-2 after falling to Oklahoma State and North Carolina by a combined eight points, won three straight and lost to Virginia Tech by a field goal.
The highlight of the season — and arguably of the last seven seasons — was a shocking mid-November upset of eventual national champion Clemson, ending the nation's longest home winning streak at 21 games. They also beat Penn State.
Head Coach: Pat Narduzzi (3rd year, 16-10 overall)
Pat Narduzzi isn't winning conference titles and contending for national championships in his first head coaching job, but he's still doing well. The 51-year-old has back-to-back eight-win seasons and is 11-5 in the ACC, twice finishing second in the Coastal.
His goal for 2017? Double-digit wins.
“[We] will be more of a target this year than a year ago, because people know [we] play tough football. I think from the outside, the image is Pitt can play,” Narduzzi said this summer. “How much they can play, we’ll find out. It would be nice to get double-digit wins. That’s what we need to get to.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
RB Qadree Wilson, WR Quadree Henderson, WR Jester Weah, OT Brian O'Neill, G Alex Officer, G Alex Bookser
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada bailed for the same position at LSU, prompting Narduzzi to hire longtime friend Shawn Watson from his quarterbacks post at Indiana. Things won't be dramatically different, with Watson keeping the jet sweep and much of the run game scheme.
"I thought Matt did a great job last year," Watson said. "There are going to be aspects of that we'll keep because it's been awesome. We'll add my background and things that I've done and merge it with what they do. There's a lot in the passing game that's very similar. I called it differently than what he did, same play. I'm going to learn how they called it."
Watson's most important player, USC transfer quarterback Max Browne, will be discussed in the Player Additions section below. Elsewhere, he inherits a ton of playmakers, led by running back Qadree Ollison. As a freshman in 2015, 6-foot-2, 230-pounder stepped in for James Conner and rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Leading receiver Jester Weah is back, as is multi-dimensional receiver Quadree Henderson. Henderson was a major weapon running the ball, averaging 10.5 yards per carry (60 attempts for 631 yards). The All-ACC and All-American speedster will be used similarly in Watson's system, evident by his 189 all-purpose yards in the spring game.
"I want to win the Heisman," he said after the game. "It’s all up to me to put in the work."
The offensive line lost two All-ACC players but return three starters, including junior tackle Brian O'Neill, a preseason all-conference pick.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Rori Blair, LB Oluwaseun Idowu, CB Avonte Maddox, S Jordan Whitehead
Pitt ranked 16th nationally with 119 rushing yards allowed per game. That was it. That was about the only thing their defense did well in 2016. Coordinator Josh Conklin is looking for "dog soldiers" to ensure they're not gashed again.
“Those are the guys that make the big dog plays,” he said. “We’re really just trying to emphasize finishing and making plays.”
One of those players will be safety Jordan Whitehead, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound freshman from nearby Aliquippa. He had 65 tackles, one interception and two passes defended last year, and is expected to move from the boundary safety spot to the field safety spot.
"We lost Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb last year, so I was the only guy who knew that spot," Whitehead said. "I learned from them both, in case they need me wherever."
He and senior corner Avonte Woodard, who has led the Panthers in interceptions and passes defended the last two years, are the leaders in the secondary.
The front seven is thin — and that's being kind. Senior end Rori Blair is the only defensive lineman with significant experience and Oluwaseun Idowu is the lone proven linebacker. Idowu and the staff did express excitement about the growth and athleticism of the linebacker group.
"Position changes and stuff like that, guys are really adjusting well,” Idowu said. “And just learning the defense and the little aspects that are going to help us overall in the game.”
Notable Player Losses
QB Nathan Peterman, RB James Conner, OT Adam Bisnowaty, G Dorian Johnson, LB Ejuan Price, S Ryan Lewis
As optimistic as Pitt fans are about Max Browne, they may miss Nathan Peterman in the early going as Browne continues absorbing Watson's offense. Peterman, one of their four offensive players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, had 47 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and over 5,000 yards the last two years.
The most headline-grabbing loss is all-world running back James Conner, a remarkable athlete who dominated before and after defeating cancer. He and lineman Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson will be greatly missed.
Their top defensive player Ejuan Price, a seventh-round pick by the Rams, is gone after ranking second in the FBS in tackles for loss with 23. His 13 sacks ranked second in the ACC and seventh in the nation.
Notable Player Additions
QB Max Browne, DT Keyshon Camp, DT Kam Carter, DE Dewayne Hendrix
A year after losing the USC starting job to Sam Darnold, Max Browne is once again a starting quarterback in the Power Five.
"If you’d have asked 18-year old Max Browne about not panning out at USC, that’d have been the biggest disaster ever, a nightmare,” he said in April. “That’s why I did so much there, so it wouldn’t happen, but when it did happen, well, I’m fine.
Browne played sparingly at Alabama and rarely threw downfield, instead relying on short-yardage passes in his limited time. But he did show good pocket presence and athleticism.
Defensive end Dewayne Hendrix transferred from Tennessee in 2015 but in reality he's an addition. After sitting out a season, he played just three series in the 2016 opener before going down with a season-ending injury.
Redshirt freshman tackle Keyshon Camp is projected to start after the dismissal of Jeremiah Taleni. JUCO transfer Kam Carter should be in the mix for snaps at tackle too.
Pitt has one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country. After opening against one of the best teams in the FCS, Youngstown State (where Narduzzi played linebacker for one year, 1985), they play Penn State (away) and Oklahoma State (home).
The Panthers have one two-game homestand but zero multi-game road trips, with all five road games broken up by home dates. The do get three of their final four games at home, including Miami in the season finale.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Youngstown State|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Penn State|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Oklahoma State|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Georgia Tech|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Rice|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Syracuse|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. North Carolina State|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Duke|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Virginia|
|Thursday, Nov. 9||vs. North Carolina|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Virginia Tech|
|Friday, Nov. 24||vs. Miami (FL)|