It's not football season yet, I know. But it's 78 days away, for those keeping track (maybe people other than me now?). And that means we're prepping for this all-important 2015 season at Syracuse. We start with our opponents, which "may" not be as tough as they've been in recent seasons. Each week, we'll preview another team on the 2015 slate, from week one through week 13. Today, we continue with the:
School: University of Pittsburgh
#BRAND Slogan: "Hail to Pitt"
Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: "Hey, We're Not the Steelers." "We're the E-PITT-ome of Education."
Recommended Blog: Cardiac Hill
Coach: Pat Narduzzi, 1st year. Narduzzi arrived at Pitt this offseason after the latest "meh" hire, Paul Chryst, for the Panthers up and left for Wisconsin. Pat was previously the defensive coordinator for Michigan State, where he helped lead a Spartans resurgence from 2007-2014 (which Bill C. covered a bunch yesterday too). He's all about aggressive defensive schemes, which... we should be familiar to us Orange-folk.
2014 Record: (6-7) (4-4)
Recapping Last Season:
Last season, Pitt did that usual thing they do... win a game against a good team (Boston College), lose a close one to a good team (Iowa) and then lose in horrendous fashion to a team they have no business losing to (Akron). The Panthers eventually salvaged some things and beat a decent Miami team to get to a bowl game. Then they lost to Houston in a bowl game. It was one of those seasons for Pitt. And by one of those seasons, we mean every one of the last couple decades of seasons for Pitt, except for the "return of Pitt script" part. That was admittedly pretty great.
Pitt's offense wasn't half-bad last year, mostly due to James Conner and the running game. Conner, as you may remember, was the ACC player of the year and ran for nearly 1,800 yards (and 26 touchdowns too). He didn't do much against the Orange (only 38 yards), but obviously he did plenty against the Panthers' other opponents. Elsewhere, the team struggled to move the ball through the air due to Chad Voytik's erratic quarterback play. Other than all-world pass-catcher Tyler Boyd, no Pittsburgh wideout tallied more than 201 receiving yards. Soooo, outside of Conner and Boyd's very effective play, there really wasn't much happening.
Defensively, Pitt was middle-of-the-road -- especially considering the level the team had performed at in prior years. A large amount of turnover on that side of the ball resulted in some growing pains and uneven play. But ultimately, the team still managed to finish in the top half of both scoring and total defense. The linebacker spot, in particular, was a strong point with seniors Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas leading the team in tackles. Turnovers were at a premium, with just 14 on the season (116th in FBS), and tackles for loss were similarly low (just 54 ranked 118th in the nation). Results are results, however, and this D still did enough to aid this team en route to bowl eligibility.
History with Syracuse: Syracuse has played Pitt the second-most times of any opponent. This year's matchup will actually tie them for first (with Penn State) at 71 total meetings. The Panthers lead the all-time series, 31-36-3, and the two squads have played every single seasons since 1955 (including last year's ugly 30-7 road loss for SU). AND WE STILL DON'T CARE ABOUT ONE ANOTHER. The ACC doesn't care that we don't give a damn about one another, though, so we'll continue to play every season anyway.
2015 Season Outlook:
Narduzzi's arrival gives cause for hope at Pitt, where the program has been dying for a breakthrough following a couple decades of rotten luck (again, check out Bill C.'s post for further details on that narrative). One of the Panthers' primary issues last season was consistency, and even just a little bit of that should help provide some more positive returns and perhaps even its first winning record in ACC play since joining the conference in 2013. Recent news is unlikely to help that effort though, as most have probably seen the news about Boyd's DUI charge by this point. There's no word yet on what sort of punishment he may face from the team as a result.
But if Boyd CAN return and play the majority of Pitt's games, this should be an entertaining passing attack to watch, even if it's just a lot of Voytik-to-Boyd once again. As long as Conner is lined up at running back, opposing defenses will have to add another body or two up the middle, which should help open things up for the speedy, sure-handed Boyd on the outside. As we noticed last season after a seven-catch, 126-yard and one-score effort last fall, Boyd's lethal in space and only stands to improve in 2015. If he doesn't suit up for any extended period of time... the Panthers' passing game suddenly gets a bit dicier and puts a lot more onus on Conner (who is likely up for the challenge, in any case).
The defensive turnover from 2013 to 2014 yields a whole lot more stability from 2014 to 2015, though, and that's where Narduzzi may be able to work his magic. Pitt loses four key players from last season, but everyone else is largely back -- including a young and hungry secondary that is likely to increase those low turnover figures from last season. Corner Lafayette Pitts and safety Reggie Mitchell are primed to improve under the new system and could be some of the more dangerous DBs in the conference by year's end. DT Darryl Render will hold things down on the line, and he'll need to in order to make up for some inexperience at linebacker, with two of last year's three starters gone.
Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, October 24
Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.
Odds of Orange Victory: 35 percent
Very Early Outlook:
This being a home game and all certainly helps the Orange a little, and on a related note, the last two games between these teams at the Carrier Dome have both come down to one single point (SU is 1-1 in those). So there's at least a history of some tighter matchups lately, and if it stays low-scoring, that could certainly assist an Orange team primed for that type of game. However, with so many pieces back on the defensive end, and what should be an improved team overall under new leadership, it's tough to see the Orange coming out of this one alive. Win or lose the previous week at Virginia, it will take a physical toll, and that could carry over to this matchup against another bruising team, Pitt. Maybe if Boyd's not playing there's a better shot. But Pitt's experience and aggressiveness (on both sides of the ball) should be enough to guide them through to a win over SU.