CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Since joining the ACC, Pitt has opened its football season with an FBS team once. That happened in its first ACC season, when the Panthers hosted then-ranked No. 1 Florida State and got drubbed, 41-13, in 2013.
Since then, in each of the last five seasons, Pitt has not only gone out-of-conference for its opener, but has gone down to the FCS level, playing the likes of Youngstown State, Villanova and Delaware. Pitt is, by far, not the only ACC or FBS team that was — or still is — doing this. Big-time programs like to open up with a cupcake – as they are often referred to – to boost confidence, to get an extra look at players way down the depth chart and to work out some kinks before conference play gets under way.
But this season, Pitt won’t have that luxury. The Panthers open the season by hosting the Virginia Cavaliers, who are not only an FBS team, but an in-division opponent in the ACC.
In short: this game is very important. Pitt will have to be at its very best right from the get-go.
“That opener matters. I think we’ll have more focus during camp, because they know what’s on the line with that opener,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said last week at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. “Telling you here in July, I do like (opening with an ACC opponent). I just think it gives your kids a little bit more focus.”
Pitt has never lost a season-opener under Narduzzi, although it has had a pair of close calls against Youngstown State, beating the Penguins by eight points or less in 2017 and 2015.
Narduzzi is also 4-0 against Virginia during his time at the helm of the Panthers, but Pitt isn’t taking the Cavaliers lightly heading into week one.
“No matter what team we play, we’re going to treat them the same. We’re not going to look at any team differently,” senior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench said. “But I expect Virginia to come out, ready to go. They’re going to prepare just like us.”
From the other side, the respect is mutual.
“We have a great opportunity and a formidable challenge in our opener,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Arguably the two teams that were competing and had the best chance to win the Coastal last year in a hard-fought game. We haven’t beaten them yet. It’s a significant challenge which adds urgency to our fall camp preparation.”
Virginia finished last season with an 8-5 record and a 4-4 mark in ACC play. Before falling to Pitt on Nov. 2, the ‘Hoos were riding a three-game winning streak. They finished fourth in the Coastal.
But this year, the Cavaliers are aiming high and were confident at the ACC Kickoff event at the Westin in Charlotte. Media members gathered at the event voted Virginia as the favorite to win the Coastal this season. Former Miami coach Mark Richt, who will be an analyst for the new ACC Network, seemed to agree.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Virginia was that team to rise up and win (the Coastal Division) this year,” Richt said.
A different team has won the Coastal in each of the past six years, so 2019 could very well be Virginia’s time. The ‘Hoos have trended upward under Mendenhall, going 2-10, 6-7 and then 8-5 in his first three seasons as head coach.
In team defense, Virginia was third in the ACC and 31st in the nation last year, per S&P+. The ‘Hoos are also armed with arguably the best defensive back in the conference in Bryce Hall. A year ago, he was a First Team All-ACC selection, a Second Team All-American and came away with five takeaways while leading the nation in passes defended with 24. He’s been pegged in many NFL mock drafts as a first round pick in 2020 and is the nation’s highest rated cornerback by Pro Football Focus.
On offense, they have Bryce Perkins, who is probably the second-best quarterback in the conference behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Last year, Perkins – in a transition year after coming to Virginia from a junior college – accounted for 34 touchdowns, the most in the ACC.
“I think everybody on our team is starting to believe, starting to work like we deserve to be in the top conversation,” Perkins said. “We expect to be great. We won’t settle for anything less.”
When the 2019 season winds down, the opener on Aug. 31 at Heinz Field could be looked back upon as Pitt handing off its Coastal torch to Virginia, or as Pitt’s first step on the road to defending its division crown. The Panthers hope it’s the latter.
“Every game is approached the same, with us at least. We try to focus more on ourselves,” senior cornerback Dane Jackson said. “It definitely gives us an edge and that mindset that, we can’t start slow.”
Added Narduzzi: “I think, top to bottom, the Coastal division is as competitive as you’re going to get. I think anybody can win it every year.”