Since arriving in the ACC, the Pitt Panthers have been a stable, mostly decent team. The first two years under Paul Chryst, they went 6-6 both seasons, splitting the two bowl games they played in.
Pat Narduzzi took over in 2015, and Pitt has since taken a step forward, at least results wise. The Panthers have gone 8-5 both of the last two years. Last year they gave eventual national champion Clemson their only loss of the season, and their win over Penn State probably kept their cross-state rivals out of the playoff.
The Narduzzi hire was seen as a good one, and so far, it’s produced good results. In theory, the Panthers should continue to build up towards being a consistent challenger in the ACC Coastal. They probably will do that in time, but 2017 is an interesting challenge.
The Panthers have a lot to replace, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Last year, the Panthers had a highly productive offense, but several of the reasons for that offense have left. All-ACC running back and general awesome story James Conner is gone. Quarterback Nathan Peterman is now a Buffalo Bill. Offensive lineman Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty were both selected in the draft. On top of all that, coordinator Matt Canada joined the LSU staff.
Pitt still has some weapons on that side of the ball, however. Receiver Quadree Henderson is back after going for nearly 1000 combined receiving and rushing yards. Henderson is also a threat on returns, taking one punt and three kickoffs for touchdowns last season.
To replace Peterman, the Panthers brought in USC transfer Max Browne. Browne didn’t have the best time with the Trojans, but Pitt just proved with Peterman that they can work with transfer QBs.
Henderson is good on the ground, but in terms of straight up running backs, the Panthers have some production to replace. Chawntez Moss got 42 rushes last year as a freshman, the most of any non-Conner running back. Other returning backs include Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison, the latter of whom scored two touchdowns in limited touches. There are also a pair of four star recruits coming in. The Panthers may not be able to totally replace Conner, but they have options.
On the defensive side, Pitt loses their two leading tacklers, and Ejuan Price, who recorded 13 sacks. Transfer Dewayne Hendrix may need to play an important role in replacing what was lost. He was a four-star recruit when he entered Tennessee, so the potential is there. The Pitt defense struggled at times last year, and losing pieces from that isn’t ideal, but with Narduzzi, there’s always a chance the Panthers put together a good defense.
One of the more interesting storylines for the Panthers is replacing Matt Canada. They brought in fellow pro style coach Shawn Watson, who spent last season as Indiana quarterbacks coach, as their new offensive coordinator. Watson had spells as OC at Colorado and Nebraska before ending up at Louisville. After starting as quarterbacks coach with the Cardinals, he was elevated to OC in 2011. At Louisville with Teddy Bridgewater, Watson put together a pretty good offense, but for the most part his teams haven’t been phenomenal or anything.
Last Year’s UNC-Pitt game was a pretty good encapsulation of how Pitt was on defense last year. They were often not bad at stopping the run, but they could get burned in the air. A Narduzzi style defense is going to be willing to take risks. If that goes like it did towards the end of his run at Michigan State, they can be good. If it goes like last year, they could give up 50+ points to someone again.
Since Pitt joined the ACC, the Tar Heels have won all four meeting the teams have had. However, all four have been close. Every game has been decided by a touchdown or less, the peak coming on last year’s Tar Heel win in the dying seconds.
UNC’s win last year came thanks mostly to the Mitch Trubisky and the Tar Heel being able to gain 453 yards in the air. The totals yards, turnovers, penalties, first down numbers, were all fairly similar. Carolina just got the ball last and made it count.
Coming into this year, three out of the four units in this game are replacing major pieces. This game may just come down to what team is able to get their new starters settled earlier in the season. North Carolina’s defense is the only one to bring a lot back, and they if you’re ranking the units, they were either third or fourth in 2016.
Between that, and how these teams have matched up in the past, this game will probably be close. With the game being in Pittsburgh this year, we’ll give them a very slight advantage.
Prediction: Pitt 35, UNC 33