Most of the talk this offseason has been about the strong Atlantic division in the ACC. While Clemson and Florida State are clearly the cream of the crop, Louisville is widely considered the conference’s sleeper team. Over in the Coastal division, North Carolina and Miami are the two favorites in what is considered the more uncertain division. But if the Coastal is truly wide open, it’s time to stop overlooking the Pitt Panthers.
Pittsburgh finished second in its division last season with a 6-2 ACC record, and the Panthers accomplished that feat under a first-year head coach in Pat Narduzzi and without the team’s best offensive player. Furthermore, Pitt will have 16 returning starters, including starting quarterback Nathan Peterman, the Panthers’ leading rushers from each of the last two years and several defensive stars.
Just as Narduzzi planned, this team’s identity is defense. The Panthers averaged 2.85 sacks per game last season, which was 16th-most in the country. Defensive end Ejuan Price led the way, finishing 10th with 11.5 sacks. Fourteen other players on the roster had at least 0.5 sacks.
Strong safety Jordan Whitehead led the team with 109 tackles, the most by a freshman in school history. Whitehead also had 7.0 tackles for loss, six pass defenses and one interception on his way to earning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Both of these defenders should only get better. On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh hopes the return of James Conner helped elevate the offense.
In 2014, James Conner led the ACC in both rushing yards, 1,765, and rushing touchdowns, 26, as a sophomore, but he missed all of last season due to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In addition to treatment for that, Conner underwent MCL surgery during the offseason. He had just eight attempts for 77 yards last season.
But the Panthers also have Qadree Ollison, who rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2015. If Conner returns to form, Pittsburgh would have one of the best one-two running back punches not only in the ACC but the entire country.
Although with these two running backs it appears Pittsburgh will be a run-first team again, Peterman is a proven quarterback. The senior Tennessee transfer emerged as a leader and took over the starting job in Week 3 last year. Peterman finished second with a 61.5 percent completion percentage and third with 20 touchdown passes in the ACC.
The Panthers will have to rely upon their experienced quarterback and running game while the young receiving core develops early in the season. Pittsburgh’s 2015 leading receiver, Tyler Boyd, entered the NFL this past spring.
Unfortunately, the one thing that could hold back the Panthers is the team’s schedule. Last year, Pittsburgh avoided Clemson and Florida State and played Louisville, North Carolina and Miami at home.
The schedule doesn’t quite unfold that nicely this season for the Panthers. They play North Carolina and Miami on the road. In its second cross-divisional game, Pitt will face Clemson and that game is also away from the Steel City.
Out of conference, the Pitt plays Penn State and Oklahoma State. If things don’t go well early, Pittsburgh could easily have three losses before October.
But if things do fall into place, Pitt has the talent on both sides of the ball to make noise in the Coastal division. Maybe the tougher slate of games holds the Panthers back in 2016, but the program is definitely on the rise.