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Pittsburgh Preview: Panthers Start New Era Under Pat Narduzzi

After a celebrated eight-year career as a defensive coordinator at Michigan State, Pat Narduzzi decided that he wanted more for his career–and that “more” involves doing more than just coaching a position group or unit, it involves coaching the whole thing.

The Paul Chryst era has come to an end, and the Panthers are preparing to start anew under Narduzzi, who constructed rock-solid defenses on an almost-annual basis in East Lansing.

Team: Pittsburgh Panthers

2014 record: 6-7 (4-4 ACC)

Recap: The Paul Chryst era comes to an end.

After jumping out to a 3-0 start, things were not setting up all that badly for the Panthers. One of those wins was a big road victory at Boston College, so heading into a home tilt with Iowa, Chryst’s team certainly had a lot of hope. But after losing a close game to the Hawkeyes, the Panthers were left wondering what might have been in terms of their 4-0 start. Losing to Iowa was nothing to be upset about, though. What came next would be something to be upset about. Pitt then went on to lose a home game to Akron, and couldn’t regroup in time to gain a win over Virginia the following week.

The Panthers would come back with a vengeance after the bye and score a win over Virginia Tech, which momentarily boosted momentum. However, this team then went on to give up 56 points to Georgia Tech, 51 points to Duke, and 40 points to North Carolina in three straight losses. And while Pitt would rally to finish at 6-6 on the year, the defense just didn’t allow this team to be anything more than an average ACC squad.

Now the Panthers enter a new era under former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who will without question be looking to fix those defensive issues in a hurry.

But can he do it quick enough to keep Pitt in bowl contention?

 

Key player: James Conner, Jr., RB

Even with a struggling defense, offense wasn’t really an issue for the Panthers last season. The big reason why was James Conner, who enters the new season as one of the best running backs in the entire country. The junior running back broke an ACC single-season record in rushing out to 26 touchdowns on the year, and there is simply no doubt that the offense will go through him this season.

 

Biggest strength: Playmakers on offense

The thing is, Pitt has more than Conner. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd is an easy choice as a preseason All-American, and he will give the Panthers a huge threat on the outside in the passing game. With Conner and Boyd having the ability to strike for a big play at a moment’s notice, opposing defenses will struggle to keep both players in check. If Chad Voytik stays consistent at quarterback, this team is going to score a lot of points.

 

Biggest weakness: Overall talent on defense

The aforementioned thrashings that Pitt took against Georgia Tech, Duke, and North Carolina weren’t flukes. This defense just wasn’t all that good last season. It should take a step forward under Narduzzi, but Pitt fans should not be expecting to a Michigan State-like defense on the field this year. There’s no doubt that the Panthers will be better under Narduzzi’s leadership, but the overall depth isn’t there right now for this defense to be elite.

 

Most important game: at Virginia Tech (Oct. 3)

It’s rare that the fourth game of the season is the most important, but that seems to be the case. Why? Pitt opens up the season with Youngstown State, then travels to Akron and Iowa. Again, that duo came in and won at Heinz Field last season, so the Panthers will be looking for revenge. Getting it will be easier said than done. After those three games, a crucial first ACC contest against Virginia Tech awaits. Starting 3-0 and then starting the conference season off right with a win? That could help Pitt get to 5-0 (the Panthers get Virginia at home after visiting the Hokies) heading into an October 17 meeting with Georgia Tech.

 

Best-case scenario: 9-3 (6-2)

That will likely catch a lot of people off guard. Pitt has so much offensive talent that if the defense exceeds expectations, this team has the makeup to contend for an ACC title. But that’s a big “if” right now. The Panthers get North Carolina, Louisville, and Miami all at home, which will be games that could go either way, and winning at Duke and Syracuse isn’t too daunting of a challenge. In this scenario, the three losses would come to Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Notre Dame.

 

Worst-case scenario: 6-6 (4-4)

At least the worst-case scenario has the Panthers in a bowl game, right? What could really throw things off is if Pitt drops a game to either Akron or Iowa on the road. Obviously, the latter is more likely, but again, let’s remember what the Zips did last season. That would probably put this team in a much more difficult position entering conference play, and would rule them out as a legitimate ACC title contender.

 

Early prediction: 8-4 (5-3)

Conner and Boyd are so good that I’m willing to go on the high side here. I’m also willing to give the defense a boost because of the Narduzzi factor. Pitt’s schedule is far from easy, but given the talent on offense, they can score enough points to play with anyone. However, once again, it’ll be a case if the Panthers’ defense can do enough. They’ll do well enough to get Narduzzi to at least eight wins in his first season.

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