Will 2017 be better than 2016 for the Panthers? Is the needle really trending upward for Pitt football?

If you read Pitt’s message boards, you will see time after time, “Pitt is trending upward.” So much so, it has almost become a catch phrase and one might think this year’s marketing slogan.  Is the needle really trending upward for Pitt football?  Will 2017 be better than 2016 for Pitt football?

Last season, Pitt had an experienced game-tested senior quarterback in Nathan Peterman, James Conner back at running back and two future NFL offensive linemen in Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty, a quality tight end in Scott Orndoff and one of the best offensive lines in all of college football and it resulted in Pitt’s most prolific scoring offense ever.

Both Miami and Virginia Tech had new head coaches taking over programs that were down in recent years and North Carolina would not be nearly as good as they were in 2015. As much as Pitt fans consider a second consecutive 8-5 season as progress, Pitt lost to all three and let a golden opportunity and the ACC Coastal Division title slip away.

Justin Fuente and Mark Richt will continue to improve their football programs at Virginia Tech and Miami respectfully and despite the Pitt is trending upward talk, in all likelihood Pitt will take a step back this year, especially on offense since offensive coordinator Matt Canada left for a more lucrative lateral position at LSU. As of this date, Miami’s and Virginia Techs 2018 recruiting classes are ranked 1st and 11th respectfully, well ahead of Pitt’s 2018 recruiting class that is currently ranked 41st.  To illustrate the difference in recruiting, Miami currently has 15 four-star commits in their 2018 recruiting class and Pitt none.

Unlike some that cover Pitt football looking through Pitt Blue and Gold tinted glasses, https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/looking-through-pitt-blue-and-gold-tinted-glasses-misperception/, Reed Kohberger in pittpov.com does an excellent job of objectively covering Pitt football and compared Pitt position-by-position for 2017 versus 2016.  If you are a serious Pitt football fan, you will enjoy his objective coverage.

The only positions that Kohberger sees as upgrades from last year are: wide receiver, linebacker, and defensive backs. He rates the running back position a draw and has the following positions as downgrades:  offensive line, quarterback, tight end, defensive tackle, and defensive end.

On offense, it all starts up front with the offensive line and even if your wide receivers are better than last year, if your offensive line isn’t opening holes for your running backs for some offensive balance and to keep opposing pass rushers honest, your quarterback isn’t going to have time to throw and find those wide receivers.

On defense, it also starts all up front and even if your secondary play is improved, if the defensive line isn’t getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, that creates more pressure on the secondary to keep receivers from getting open that much longer.

In addition, Pitt returns fewer starters than any of their ACC counterparts. Pitt lost 12 starters and kicker Chris Blewitt and only 10 starters and punter Ryan Winslow return in 2017. Knowing that, why do Pitt fans believe the needle is trending upward in 2017?

After surrendering the top three passing performances to ACC quarterbacks in 2016 and having the worst passing defense in the ACC and 127th overall in the NCAA surrendering 333.2 yards per game, can the defense get any worse?  Is that sufficient cause for optimism?  How does 2016’s schedule compare to 2017’s?

Despite it being the season opener, the danger exists of looking past Youngstown State, which hopefully Pitt will not do, towards a September 9th visit to State College to face top 10 foe Penn State. After last year’s 42-39 loss at Pitt, the Nittany Lions will be out for revenge and they will be a much-improved team from the team that came into Heinz Field injured and short on experience and still learning and adjusting to offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense.   Facing a revenge-minded and improved Penn State team on the road in Happy Valley bodes as a bad loss for Pitt.

A return home to Heinz Field on September 16th doesn’t get much easier for Pitt as Oklahoma State comes to town. The Cowboys are ranked anywhere from sixth to 16th in most pre-season polls and will be favored against the Panthers. Despite the home field advantage this year, Pitt lost too much on offense from last year’s team to stay with Oklahoma State. The Cowboys ride away with a victory and Pitt is now is 1-2 on the year.

After a 9-4 record in 2016, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets return 16 starters but missing will be quarterback Justin Thomas who had 38 career starts for head coach Paul Johnson. Some questionable play-calling and poor defense cost the Yellow Jackets the game at Heinz Field last year.

If Johnson can get good quarterback play this game could go the Yellow Jackets way especially at home. Pitt has won the last two meetings against the Yellow Jackets 31-28 and 37-34 despite Narduzzi’s defense surrendering 376 and 241 yards rushing. Pitt is desperate to avoid falling to 1-3 and pulls off the win on the road.

What can you say about Rice at Pitt? Perhaps the biggest question is what will the “announced” attendance be for this less than stellar opponent. Tickets are already at the absolute minimum $6 on StubHub. Pitt is now 3-2.

Last year Jamie Dixon outcoached Jim Boeheim in this match up or at least one would think so seeing the 76-61 score between Pitt and Syracuse. The Orange return 21 starters, the most in the country, nine on offense, 10 on defense and their placekicker and punter are back. After last year’s 4-8 season, is that the good news or the bad news for Syracuse fans? Continued improvement is expected under second-year head coach Dino Babers. At the Carrier Dome, this game will be closer than last year’s game at Heinz Field, but the Panthers should win this one.

Pitt returns home to Heinz Field to face the Wolfpack of North Carolina State. NC State has 16 starters back along with their placekicker and punter returning in 2017.  NC State returns eight starters on both offense and defense from a 7-6 season in 2016.

Quarterback Ryan Finley returns for head coach Dave Doeren after throwing for 3,059 yards and completing 60% of his passes in 2016. Doesn’t matter, if Pitt takes care of business, they win, and they will.

After a 4-8 season in 2016, Duke returns redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones and coach David Cutcliffe’s offense is always capable of scoring a lot of points. Despite being at home, Duke doesn’t have the talent to win against the Panthers.  Pitt is now 6-2 on the season and a perfect 4-0 in conference play.

Virginia returns 13 starters after a 2-10 season in 2016. It will be another long year for head coach Bronco Mendenhall in Charlottesville.  Pitt should have no problems with the Cavaliers. Pitt is now 5-0 in ACC play and 7-2 overall.

North Carolina had starting quarterback Mitch Tubisky and running back Elijah Hood turn pro and Pitt fans are certainly happy that wide receiver/returner extraordinaire Ryan Switzer graduate. New starters are needed to replace center for Lucas Crowley and tackle Jon Heck who combined for 90 starts in their college careers. No team in the ACC lost more on offense than the Tar Heels. It remains to be seen if LSU quarterback transfer Brandon Harris will run Coach Larry Fedora’s offense.

Last season, Pitt’s defense ranked #117th national in first downs allowed as North Carolina was able to convert on multiple 4th downs and went on to beat Pitt in Chapel Hill.  After last year’s last second loss on the road against the Tar Heels, this year’s game at home will not get away from the Panthers and there will not be another miracle comeback for the Tar Heels.  Pitt is now 8-2 and 6-0 in ACC play.  Pitt fans are now thinking big and talking ACC title game and calling for athletic director Heather Lyke to give head coach Pat Narduzzi a raise and a contract extension.

After finishing ranked #16 in 2016, Virginia Tech is ranked #22 in ESPN’s pre-season poll. Second-year head coach Justin Fuentes needs to find a new starting quarterback as Jerrod Evans declared early for the NFL draft.  The Hokies need to replace three starters on the defensive line but nearly all the linebackers and secondary return in 2017.

Bolstered by their home fans on senior day, the Hokies defeat Pitt.  Pitt is now 8-3 and 6-1 in ACC play.

Miami is ranked 15th in ESPN’s pre-season poll and returns eight starters on both sides on the line of scrimmage.  Despite quarterback Brad Kaaya’s decision to turn pro after his junior year, expectations exist for continued improvement from last year’s 9-4 season and finishing ranked 20th in the AP Poll.

Miami has too much speed and talent for the Panthers.  Pitt falls to 8-4 and 6-2 in ACC play.

I’m not sure how a third consecutive 8-4 regular season and another disappointing finish qualifies as the needle trending upward but taking into account what Pitt’s offense had to replace from their record setting year in 2016, this is the year, unlike 2016, that Pitt fans should be happy with an eight-win regular season.

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites.  This article and older ones about Pitt football can be found at: https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/