ACC Countdown: No. 8 Pittsburgh

Pitt running back James Conner, last season's leading rusher, is one of many sophomore skill-position players back for the Panthers this season. 

Pittsburgh did quite well in its inaugural ACC season, beating the teams it should beat more often than not while losing to the teams it should lose to more often than not, too. All that ultimately resulted in a 7-6 record and a bowl game win over Bowling Green.

There’s a lot of change on this year’s roster at important spots, like quarterback and defensive tackle (without the fantastic Aaron Donald), but Paul Chryst appears to have this program finally in a stable place and headed in the right direction. But can it compete for a wide-open Coastal Division this year?

In total, 14 of 22 starters return. That includes plenty of production, too — the top five rushers from a season ago, not to mention three of the top four receivers and three of the top five tacklers, are back.

Sophomore running back James Conner, who finished with 799 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, will join teammate Isaac Bennett (797 yards, seven touchdowns) in the backfield, while sophomore receiver Tyler Boyd — who finished last season with 85 catches for 1,174 yards — is back, too. On defense, seniors Ray Vinopal and Anthony Gonzalez will lead a young but promising group that returns less than half of its starters, but plenty of experience.

There weren’t a lot of losses in terms of quantity, but the quality can’t be overstated — particularly with the loss of ACC Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. His numbers speak for themselves — 28.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks — but the way opposing offenses game-planned around him will certainly be missed, too. Replacing him will have to be a team effort; junior Darryl Render will start in his place, but they’ll all have to combine to replace his production. And even then, it still likely won’t equal Donald’s impact.

The starting quarterback and Pitt’s leading receiver in program history are also both gone. But oddly, both will be easier to replace. Savage was a transfer who had just one season remaining last season, and he performed well — and backup Chad Voytik was being groomed for this, as he showed when he finished off Pitt’s bowl win after Savage got hurt. The dual-threat QB will at least help make up for an offensive line that could still be a bit shaky.

Devin Street finished as Pitt’s all-time leading pass catcher in school history, and he entered last season as one of the league’s best receivers. In spite of that, Boyd had the better year statistically. Still, Street garnered a lot of attention when he was healthy (he played just 10 games) and that eased the pressure on Boyd. Someone is going to have to step up as a complementary receiver — early indications are it could be someone like Manasseh Gardner, but the point is it has to be someone.

There are a lot of skill-position players returning — young ones, and the foundation of the future going forward with Chryst. The real question is whether or not the defense will be good enough — up front, in the middle, and especially in the secondary — to make this team as competitive as it could be. The schedule sets up very well for the Panthers, particularly early on, and the defense should have plenty of time to figure things out before things get difficult.

Last year, Pitt’s defense was all over the place, with the low light being 55 points and 532 yards surrendered in a win at Duke before holding Virginia to 188 yards the next week. Those offenses are a lot different, of course, but still. Now, without Donald — who was a one-man wrecking crew last season — will Pitt’s defense be able to take the necessary next step and defend ACC offenses the way it will need to in order to contend in the Coastal Division?

… Pittsburgh can improve on last year’s 7-6 mark. The Panthers have a very favorable first-half schedule, one that should end with the Panthers having no fewer than four wins. The back half of the schedule won’t be easy — three home games against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech (with extra time to prepare for the flexbone offense), and Duke, followed by a trip to UNC, Syracuse at home and a trip to Miami.

Other than UNC and Miami, the tougher games are at home, where anything can happen in college football. And the friendly first-half schedule should give Pitt a chance for its young players to step up into bigger roles this season, particularly along both lines of scrimmage.

Winning at least eight games (including a bowl game) against that schedule would certainly be a success.

Virginia Tech, Oct. 16. This game begins the second — and more challenging — half of Pittsburgh’s schedule. The Hokies struggle to move the football, and have for the last few years. But they will have one of the best defenses in the league, just as they did last year when they pushed Pitt around at the line of scrimmage and were in Savage’s face most of the game. Voytik’s mobility will help alleviate some of that stress on the offensive line this year — not just in that game, but in other games as well — but this game will show how far Pittsburgh has truly come.

Virginia Tech wasn’t great by Virginia Tech standards last year, and it likely won’t be this year either with a new starting quarterback. Pitt’s defense needs to be good enough to win a game like this, and the offense needs to be able to move the football against a team as good as Virginia Tech, particularly since this is a home game. If Pitt can win this game, it will likely be 4-0 in ACC play and have matched last season’s win total. If it doesn’t, it will probably be 3-1 with four of its final five games being of the very losable variety.

This game will likely show if Pitt will be a contender in the Coastal.

Ultimately, Pittsburgh’s easy opening schedule (with the exception of a home game against Iowa) could be both a blessing and a curse. It will give Voytik chance to get confidence as the starter, and for the offensive line to gel, not to mention for someone to step up on defense. But the jump will be quite abrupt. After hosting Akron and traveling to Virginia, Pitt gets 12 days off before hosting Virginia Tech and starting that dreaded back half of the slate.

Assuming the Panthers are 5-1 at that point, all it will take is one disaster for the young Panthers to lose confidence without really any bounce-back type of game on the schedule. There will be a head-scratching loss or two, and Pitt is probably a year away from being really good. It’s hard to see more than 2-3 wins on that back half, though, which gives Pitt no chance for error in the front.