The legendary Phil Steele needs no introduction to most college football fans. His company, Phil Steele Publications, produces the annual preseason magazine Phil Steele’s College Football Preview. Which many people refer to as the ‘college football bible’. His magazine is the largest and most accurate college football preview magazine available. Steele’s predictions have been so accurate; he’s been called ‘The Oracle of the Collegiate Gridiron’.
We recently had the honor of speaking with him about the Pitt Panthers football team, their upcoming football season and the ACC conference.
There are many Pitt football fans that are insulated in a Western Pennsylvania bubble. Can you elaborate on the perception of the Pitt football program from a national perspective? What are you hearing?
“I think nationally, Pitt is clearly on the rise. First of all, they’re playing in ACC Coastal Division, so that’s a nice division to play in to get to the ACC title game. When I look at (Pat) Narduzzi, I look at a head coach that brings that Michigan State background and defensive background. He’s got eight starters back on Defense and I think they’re going to be very strong there. I like the renewal of the Penn State rivalry. I think that’s going to add a little bit to it. I think Pitt’s clearly on the rise and getting back towards the top.”
What are your overall thoughts on the 2016 Pitt Panther football team?
“When you look at Pitt, like I said, the defense should be improved if they have returning starters. With Narduzzi there, you look at the defensive line is one of the better ones in the country with Ejuan Price getting the sixth year. They add in Allen Edwards a JUCO that had eight sacks in ten games and Dewayne Hendrix, a Tennessee transfer. I like the defensive front. The linebackers are solid and the secondary I rate also. All three rank in my top units in the front of the magazine. In fact, seven of Pitt’s eight units rank in my top in the front of the magazine. I like the talent. I like Peterman at quarterback. When I wrote it in the spring, I had question marks on James Conner. It appears that James Conner’s going to come back. I tell you what, if he comes back 100%, I might just bump that up a little bit.”
In terms of the 2016 season, you predicted an eight and four record. Can you elaborate on your prognostication?
“Looking at the schedule this year, specifically, the four games I have an underdog in are at Oklahoma State, which is one of the top teams in the Big 12, at North Carolina, the defending champs of the Coastal Division, at Miami of Florida, a team I’m very high on this year under Mark Rick, and at Clemson. Four very tough road games this year, and it’s highly unusual for my computer, which usually gives me a myriad of possible results for a team. It has nine different sets of power ratings played into the schedule. This is one of the rare cases where all nine sets said Pitt’s going to go eight and four this year, so I said Pitt’s going to go eight and four this year because it’s very rare.”
September 10th is a significant game for Pitt. Penn State will come ready to play and it will be a pivotal game for both football programs. What are your thoughts on the match up?
“Yeah, I have Pitt, if you go to the front of my magazine in the power poll, I have Pitt 32nd ranked team in the country this year and I have Penn State my 40th ranked team, which means Pitt’s got a slight edge. Then you throw in the home-field edge on top of it, so I would think Pitt’s going to be a three-, four-point favorite, in my mind. I could tell you right now, in Las Vegas, they’re actually a seven-point favorite in that game.”
Pitt Head Football Coach Pat Narduzzi has the Pitt football program on the rise. What are your thoughts on some of the new coaches in the ACC; Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia, Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech, and Mark Richt at Miami?
“There are two guys that step into the best situation. Let’s start with Mark Richt at Miami. I thought Miami underachieved a year ago. You take a look at their talent; I thought they were better than an eight and five team. You look at that defense, the defense last year gave up 405 yards per game. They get back defensive tackle Gerald Willis who was my number seven rated defensive lineman out of high school. This guy’s a beast inside. He missed last year with an injury. He’s back. They added to Al-Quadin Muhammad at the defensive end. They’ve got Trent Harris at linebacker, Corn Elder at cornerback, and Manny Diaz is going to give them a much more aggressive scheme.”
“I know every new defensive coordinator says we’re going to more aggressive, we’re going to blitz more, and blah, blah, blah and every coordinator says that, but in this case, I think it’s actually true because they did sort of play a bend-but-don’t-break defense last year, and now they will be playing more of a defense that’s aggressive at attacking. I think they’re going to be significantly improved there. They’ve got one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Brad Kaaya, who I rate the number two QB for the NFL draft next year, a deep backfield with Joseph Yearby, Gus Edwards and Mark Walton, and I just think that Mark Richt comes in. He had spent 15 years at Georgia, maybe gotten a little stale there. Georgia fans were tired of those 10-win seasons. Meanwhile, Miami of Florida has not had a 10-win season in 13 years. It was all the way back in 2003, so they would be thrilled with that. They do have to play Florida State at home, at Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame, but I think they’ve got the potential to get back to 10 wins.”
“Stepping into another decent situation is Justin Fuente, because generally when a first-year head coach comes in, they’ve got to learn the players’ strengths and weaknesses. The players have to learn brand-new schemes. Well in this particular instance, keeping Bud Foster as the defensive coordinator was huge. Bud Foster knows every player on that team inside and out, especially the defense. Nothing’s going to change on the defense. Virginia Tech’s defense underperformed last year giving up 370 yards per game. I thought they were more talented than that coming into the year. You look at them up front, maybe they added a little bit of size in the defensive line, which they probably needed to do. I think they defense might live up to last year’s expectations. Offensively, you know, Fuente’s known for his offense, and I think you bring in a quarterback like Jerod Evans to compete with Brendan Motley at the QB spot, it could be improved there. I think as far as not having to learn the team inside and out because of Foster’s presence, that’s good for them.”
“Finally with Virginia, you know Mendenhall’s not stepping into a bad situation either. In fact, he admitted that they’ve got good returning talent coming. This is a Virginia team that wasn’t far from getting from a bowl game the last couple years. Lot of close loses the last two seasons. You know, a heartbreaker against Virginia Tech at the end of 14, cost them a bowl bid, as did a one-point loss to North Carolina, a seven-point loss to Duke. They just lost a lot of close games the last two years, and generally, when that happens, the team is much better than its final record. Then you look at the next year, if they can have some early success, they’ll be buying into Mendenhall and thinking big things. Three of their first four games, maybe even four of their first five games, fall into the winnable category. This is a Virginia team that could maybe step out of the gates big and maybe have that confidence level behind them. I did pick them for seventh in the Coastal, just because I like the overall talent of the coast, and as I said, it’s a division that you can win, but it’s probably got six bowl-caliber teams in it and I wouldn’t even discount Virginia from that equation.”
Phil Steele’s College Football Preview has an inconceivable amount of information. How much time is spent accumulating all of the data in the preseason magazine?
“I start it the Sunday after Thanksgiving and actually finished it this year on June the second. I like going to the press later, because you’re able to capture all those transfers that happen in May after the coaches do their exit interviews, and in this case, we’re able to capture that Art Briles is no longer the coach at Baylor. We’re the only magazine out there that’s got Jim Grobe as the head coach, so it’s a nice little advantage to have. The magazine is six full months of work. I personally spend about two thousand hours on it and the staff, we have 15 to 20 people that work here, they put in another 10 thousand hours on the magazine and it’s all we work on for half a year. Then, of course, during the season, while I’m watching football, I’m getting all my knowledge for next season’s magazine, so it is a year-round process.”
Harry G. Psaros can be found on Twitter at @PittGuru