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Syracuse football 2017 opponent preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

NOW do we finally care about this game a little bit?

Syracuse v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

We’re in peak offseason mode for the Syracuse Orange. But that won’t stop us from talking about football as much as possible. For the next few months, we’ll be diving into each of SU’s 12 (very difficult) opponents and all you’ll need to know about them in advance of this fall. Despite the challenges of the schedule, we’re going to be positive wherever possible. Today’s team:

Pittsburgh Panthers

School: University of Pittsburgh

Mascot: Panthers

#BRAND Slogan: “Hail to Pitt.”

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: "We’re the Pitts.” “The least important athletic entity in this town.”

Recommended Blog: Cardiac Hill

Conference: ACC

Coach: Pat Narduzzi, 3rd year. Narduzzi played linebacker for Youngstown State and Rhode Island in the late 1980s, then jumped into coaching at Miami (Ohio). He coached on the offensive side of the ball there until 1992, before heading back to Rhode Island to coach linebackers from 1993 through 1997. He was promoted to defensive coordinator and stuck around URI another two seasons. One of his biggest accomplishments with the Rams was revealing himself to be the sort of lunatic that almost killed Scott Shafer.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In 2000, he joined the Northern Illinois staff (also with Shafer), then circled back to Miami (Ohio) for a year before taking over the defensive coordinator gig at Cincinnati. His work with the Bearcats led to a move to Michigan State in 2007. Narduzzi led strong defenses for much of his time with the Spartans, which eventually motivated Pitt to hire him in 2015.

Through two seasons at Pitt, Narduzzi’s gone 16-10 with two bowl losses. The Panthers have finished second in the Coastal in both years, but the defense has also been a far cry from the excellent Spartans D he became known for.

2016 Record: (8-5) (5-3)

Recapping Last Season:

Pitt’s high-flying offense made them a weekly source of entertainment in the ACC. The Panthers scored nearly 41 points per game, and were a top-40 offense behind an efficient passing attack and a lethal ground game. James Conner tallied 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns while leading a backfield that averaged over five yards per carry. Nathan Peterman threw for 2,855 yards and 27 touchdowns (vs. just seven interceptions) -- quietly putting together one of the better passing performances in the conference.

Defensively? Oh boy... Though Pittsburgh was top-20 in terms of rushing yards per game allowed, the team also let up 28 touchdowns on the ground. The passing defense was second-worst in the country, surrendering over 333 yards per game (and an insane 4,331 yards on the season). Pitt’s total defense netted out at 100th overall in terms of yards allowed per game, and the team let up over 35 points per game.

Obviously this was not what Pitt had in mind when they brought in a defensive specialist as a head coach. The season had some highlights -- like a 42-39 win over rival and eventual Big Ten champion Penn State -- but also several lows. Despite coming away with the win, the 76-61 win over Syracuse at the end of the regular season was a bit of a black eye for the system Narduzzi has in place.

2017 Season Outlook:

Pitt’s offense will hit a hard reset on multiple fronts. Peterman’s gone, giving way to USC transfer QB Max Browne. And Conner also departs to the NFL, though Quadree Henderson and Quadree Ollison should both be able to pick up where he left off. They’ll also be figuring out a whole new offensive system with Matt Canada off to LSU. He’ll be replaced by Matt Watson, who has much more of a pro-style focus and has been around the block a few times (he’s 57, and has handled offensive coordinator duties at Nebraska, Colorado and Louisville).

On the defensive side, coordinator Josh Conklin is back, but could face a short leash given the lack of results so far at Pitt. The Panthers dropped from 37th in total defense back in 2015, to 100th last year. Output near the latter again would probably lead to his dismissal. Pittsburgh brings back just 44 percent of last year’s struggling defense, but the hope is that the returning experience in the secondary (like Jordan Whitehead) fixes last year’s problems vs. the pass. Replacing most of the front seven will not be easy.

Given all of the upheaval, this year’s schedule provides zero favors. Road games at Penn State and Georgia Tech make for a tough September, along with a home date vs. Oklahoma State as well. North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami wrapping up the November slate also increase the level of difficulty during the stretch run. Narduzzi’s in no danger, but this could be a rebuild year for Pitt.

Pittsburgh v Duke Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, October 7

Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.

Odds of Orange Victory: 45 percent

Very Early Outlook:

A much better Pittsburgh team was tested by an injury-ravaged Syracuse squad at Heinz Field, so I’m tempted to believe the Orange will be able to put up even more of a fight at the Carrier Dome this year. Assuming Syracuse can keep its health after two straight challenging contests vs. LSU and NC State, this should provide for an interesting test of just how strong the 2017 team is. Win this one and a bowl may very well be in the cards. Suffer yet another loss to the Panthers (assuming they’re probably lost both games to LSU and NCSU too) and it’ll be near-impossible to get to the postseason.