PITTSBURGH — Pitt will start its 2018 season with Albany this afternoon, continuing the Panthers’ tradition of scheduling an FCS to start the season.
It’s a practice that has been somewhat controversial in college football. The Big Ten conference briefly banned the practice, but has since reversed course on that decision. As it stands today, the rules say each and every FBS team can play one FCS per year and still count it as a bowl-eligible win.
Most take advantage of that leeway.
Of Pitt’s ACC brethren, NC State plays James Madison, Clemson plays Furman, Georgia Tech plays Alcorn State and Virginia plays Richmond this week. Next week, Wake Forest plays Towson, Boston College plays Holy Cross, Virginia Tech plays William and Mary, Syracuse plays Wagner, Miami plays Savannah State, Louisville plays Indiana State and Florida State plays Samford.
Duke gets its FCS opponent on Sept. 22, when the Blue Devils host North Carolina Central. North Carolina will wait unit Nov. 17 to play Western Carolina. When the dust has settled, every team in the conference will play a lower-level opponent in 2018.
But is that wise?
After all, it’s not like the FCS games are guaranteed wins. Last season, nine different FCS teams upset a higher-level foe. It’s happened 93 times in total since 1978, as Pitt fans should well remember when Youngstown State won convincingly at Heinz Field in 2013.
And what is there to be gained from such a matchup?
Well, there are some benefits. It lets teams test out new personnel and continue position battles from training camp through at least one game that counts.
“We plan on playing as many [guys] as we can possibly play,” defensive coordinator Randy Bates said. “It’s going to be hot, probably and we want to keep them fresh and we want to see what they can do. We have a few that have got a chance to be great players. They’re not really great players until they go out and show they can do it at Heinz Field.”
But the effectiveness of that evaluation can be damped by the typically moribund playbook employed in these situations. Against Villanova in 2016, Pitt handed off 34 times. Last year against Youngstown State, they ran the ball 53 times.
“[Albany] is a good football team,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We’re not holding anything back. So if you’re asking that, at times we hold stuff back. I think most people know what we do. So we’re going to go out and do it and find out how well we execute the offense. … I mean, you know, again, we’ve got some new wrinkles that you may not have seen before last year. You may not see those this year. But you’ll certainly see them as we move on.”
So, reading between the lines, it’s pretty clear that Pitt’s full playbook will not be on display on Saturday.
But maybe that is an advantage in a way. Pitt will have a game of reps under its belt without much of anything interesting put down on film. That was part of a successful game plan in 2016, when Pitt’s offense changed dramatically from the one employed against Villanova in the opener to the one that beat Penn State in Week 2.
But that theory only works if at the same time, Pitt wins the game. Ideally, in dominant fashion, as Pitt’s overtime win over Youngstown State last year did little to endear the Panthers to the fanbase.
In that vein, Narduzzi showed the team clips of former professional boxer Mike Tyson, who used to routinely defeat opponents in the first or second round.
“That guy had some KOs in the first round,” Narduzzi said. “It didn’t matter who that guy was fighting, he went all out. That guy won a lot of boxing matches. That guy didn’t play down to his competition in the ring. It didn’t matter. If the fight is going to be over on 37 seconds, it’s over and I’m out of the ring.”
Pitt hasn’t been able to do that in quite some time. They beat Villanova by a closer-than-it-sounds 21 points in 2016. It’s not since a 62-0 shellacking of Delaware in 2014 that the Panthers really established themselves as a dominant force over an FCS team.
If they could get back to that point on a regular basis, perhaps eventually, games against FCS schools would no longer be necessary for the Panthers.