Head Coach: Pat Narduzzi
2016 Record: 8-5 (5-3 ACC)
Over 7 wins (+135); Under 7 wins (-165)
Odds to win ACC Championship Game: +6000
Odds to win 2017 Title: +42500
Odds c/o Bookmaker
Pittsburgh was an offensive powerhouse in 2016, averaging 35 points per game and ranking No. 10 in the nation. The Panthers could be better still this season, with USC graduate Max Browne coming to head the offense at quarterback. Browne already established himself as a quality NCAA quarterback at USC, but he never really got his fair chance there after being demoted last season.
Now he will have every opportunity to be a starting NCAA quarterback.
The multitalented Quadree Henderson led the team in all purpose yards last season with 160.2 per game, and he will return in the backfield, while at wide receiver Jester Weah returns after averaging 24.2 yards per catch a year ago. Weah also scored 10 TDs for Pitt last season.
The team will have a new offensive coordinator in Shawn Watson, its third coordinator in as many seasons. However, Watson will not likely implement too many changes, given Pitt’s success last season. Fullback George Ashton will see plenty of touches, still, and the team likely will look much the same despite its different personnel.
The offensive line is being rebuilt, though, and that should only help Pitt’s core of running backs achieve greater success after a 2016 which saw them rush for 225.1 yards per game (ranking No. 28 in the nation). One area of concern is at tight end, where Pitt will look to sophomore Chris Clark as its solution. Clark has plenty of potential, but he is unproven so to speak.
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On defense, the Panthers have not been good the last two seasons. Last year Pitt gave up 35.2 points per game, ranking No. 106 in the nation, and by and large mitigating the success of a team that had such a stellar offensive season. Its pass defense was particularly horrendous, one of the worst in the country, giving up 333.2 yards per game and ranking near the bottom of FBS schools (No. 127 overall).
However, Narduzzi has focused on recruiting some defensive talents to brush up that major weakness, and among those defensive end Ejuan Price should be one of the best. Price had 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss last season.
The defensive ends are experienced and solid, with Rori Blair and De’Wayne Hendrix leading the group. The two most talented youngsters are freshman Keyshon Camp and sophomore Amir Watts. They are both big and physical, and we should start to see Pitt improve on defense as they are focused upon on the schemes this year.
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The linebackers lose three to graduation, but there is plenty of depth to rebuild the group with. Pitt has some size and speed at linebacker, with Quintin Wirginis being the premier prospect at middle linebacker. At OLB sophomore Salem Brightwell will be a difference maker.
In the secondary, the Panthers will be expecting a lot from 2016 second-team All-ACC safety Jordan Whitehead. He has 174 tackles in his career, and he occasionally pops in on offensive sets, as well. There is enough talent to expect dramatic defensive improvements this season, which should enable the team to get the most of its explosive top-10 offense.
The special teams suffer the loss of Chris Blewitt, but replace him with freshman Alex Kessman. He won the job in the spring with a lot of competition, and should be a solid replacement for the always trustworthy Blewitt. Ryan Winslow averaged 42.6 yards per punt last season and will return to handle those duties again. In terms of returns, there is not much better than Henderson. He scored four TDs for the special teams last season, with three of those coming on kick returns.
Overall, the Panthers should win more games than last season, only because the defense will be better. Browne will have to be everything that Nate Peterman was last season, and there are lingering questions as to whether he really can be after sitting low in the depth chart at USC. He lost his starting role there, but Pitt gives him plenty of talent to prove himself to be the quarterback he was once billed to be.
Pittsburgh should challenge for an ACC Coastal title and improve on last season’s eight wins, but college football oddsmakers have the over/under set at just seven. We like the over for the Panthers, even if it is tenuously resting on the improvement of Browne and a defense that was hardly effective in 2016.
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