ACC Preview: How high can Pitt climb in Pat Narduzzi’s 2nd season?

Pat Narduzzi’s head coaching debut qualified as a success. Despite the loss of then-reigning ACC Player of the Year James Conner in the season opener — the star running back tore his MCL against Youngstown State and later was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma — the Pittsburgh Panthers won eight games and made their eighth consecutive bowl appearance.

Conner (incredibly) returns to a loaded backfield, an experienced quarterback and a much-improved defense. However, Pitt faces a challenging schedule and could find it difficult to log more wins in the new-look Coastal Division.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS

ACC TEAM BREAKDOWNS

1. Will new offensive coordinator Matt Canada stick with the proven formula?

Very few teams can lose the returning Power Five rushing leader and barely skip a beat. Pittsburgh was not expected to be in that class, but after Conner’s injury, freshmen Qadree Ollison (1,121 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Darrin Hall (257 yards, 2 TDs) kept the Panthers among the nation’s top rushing attacks. This offseason, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney accepted the same position at Georgia, leaving Canada with a proven running game to lean on.

The major question for Pittsburgh’s offense will come in the passing game. Top target Tyler Boyd, one of the ACC’s best receivers in each of his three seasons on campus, and starting tight end J.P. Holtz are gone. The Panthers already lacked explosiveness through the air in 2015, but now quarterback Nathan Peterman (2,200 yards, 20 touchdowns) will need to find a comfort zone with someone other than Boyd.

2. Can the Panthers join the ACC’s top defenses?

It should come as no surprise that Narduzzi, co-architect of Michigan State’s hyper-aggressive calling card in the Big Ten, brought immediate improvement to Pittsburgh’s defense. But with nine returning starters and a few of the ACC’s top defensive playmakers, just how fast can the Panthers rise up the rankings?

Start with the front seven. A sixth year of eligibility for Ejuan Price means Pitt boasts one of the league’s top pass rushers (11.5 sacks) on a formidable line that returns four starters. Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix, a 6-foot-4 former four-star recruit, could push that group to the next level.

"I think we have a relatively fast group this year," Price said. "We have a lot of speed on the defensive line, we have guys like Tyrique Jarett, 340-pounder you can’t move. I think we have a lot of character, a big tool shed. We have a lot of versatility against our guys that I think we’ll be a problem in the end."

The linebacking corps returns three of its top four contributors and claims a host of three-star underclassmen — and four-star freshman Kaezon Pugh — waiting in the wings. Then there’s the secondary, which sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead, the 2015 ACC Rookie of the Year, and playmaking corner Avonte Maddux call home. Talent is readily available. If Pittsburgh can improve in a few select areas, such as getting off the field in traditional passing downs, this group will provide even more resistance to the league’s top offenses.

3. Will progress be obscured by a difficult schedule?

Pittsburgh’s schedule can be divided into two extra-difficult stretches.

Following a tuneup opener against Villanova, the Panthers will be tested in consecutive weeks by Penn State, Oklahoma State and reigning Coastal Division champion North Carolina. The book on Pitt will be out before October arrives. Then, after a presumed lull against Marshall, Georgia Tech and Virginia, comes three straight games against Virginia Tech, Miami and Clemson.

A crossover game against Syracuse helps alleviate a difficult non-conference schedule, but if the Panthers are going to reach eight or nine wins it will require at least two wins against high-quality opponents.