Previewing the Panthers is a series looking ahead to Pitt’s 2020 training camp and season. Each day, PSN will focus on a different coach or position group and look at all of the changes, battles and predictions that can be made in advance of the 2020 season.
Is this the year?
That has been the question that Pitt fans have seemingly been asking for many years — certainly, at least, throughout the just-closed decade.
Pitt’s 2010s saw the team go 10 seasons without winning more than eight games, 10 seasons without being ranked in the Top 25 at the end of the season and 10 season without a New Year’s Day bowl appearance.
Instead, the 2010s were a decade of transition for the Pitt program.
The tenure of Dave Wannstedt ended in 2010, breaking one of the last ties the program had to its halcyon days of the 1970s, when Wannstedt was a player and then an assistant coach under Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill.
After Wannstedt, the program went through perhaps the most tumultuous period of time in its history when it comes to leadership. From 2010 to 2017, Pitt went through five head football coaches and three athletic directors. At the same time, the team took a step up in competition, joining the Atlantic Coast Conference after the collapse of the Big East in 2013.
The combination was not a pretty one on the field for the Panthers. From 2011 to 2014, Pitt authored six straight 6-6 seasons, with only a 2013 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win pulling the Panthers above .500.
When athletic director Heather Lyke arrived on the scene in 2017, Pat Narduzzi was already installed as Pitt’s latest head coach in the carousel and he had started out with some immediate success, posting back-to-back 8-5 seasons in 2015 and 2016 before backsliding to 5-7 in 2017.
It was after that season that Lyke shocked many by rewarding Narduzzi’s worst season with a seven-year contract extension.
“We want great leadership here,” Lyke said at the 2017 press conference announcing that extension. “We want continuity of leadership.”
Two years into that contract, her faith in Narduzzi appears to have been warranted. Pitt won a Coastal Division title in 2018 and posted another eight win season in 2019, giving Narduzzi three in five years at Pitt’s head coach. Wannstedt had two in his five years. Walt Harris had three, but none in his first five seasons. Majors in his second stint, Paul Hackett and Mike Gottfried combined for one in 11 seasons.
But of course, winning eight games, though relatively rare for the Panthers over the last 35 years, is not the sole arbiter of a successful football program. Despite a division title, fans yearn for some of those other signifiers of success, like being nationally ranked and playing in a bowl game that doesn’t take place on a weekday in December.
Staring at the upcoming 2020 season, Pitt fans are salivating at the prospect of some of those wishes coming true, and that optimism seems well-founded. Continuity isn’t just something to be desired amongst head coaches.
Coming into the 2020 season, Pitt will not just return Narduzzi, but both coordinators and all eight assistant coaches from the 2019 season.
On the field, starting quarterback Kenny Pickett is back for a third season at the helm. Alongside him will be Pitt’s top three rushers, three of the top four receivers from 2019. Up front, Pitt returns four offensive linemen.
The defense should provide even more optimism. Led by preseason All-Americans Paris Ford and Jaylen Twyman, the 2020 Pitt defense will have starting experience at all 11 positions and could have as many as a half dozen 2021 NFL Draft picks.
Though Carolina has a quartet of highly-rated offensive players surrounding quarterback Sam Howell and Virginia Tech returns a lot from its own 8-5 2019 season, the biggest impediment to Pitt having a successful 2020 season as things stand at the start of July is the fact that the 2020 season might not happen at all due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s put an understandable pall over the excitement entering the fall, and well, just about everything else in the country, too. It’s also perhaps the one opponent Narduzzi shouldn’t be held accountable for losing to.
For most of the 2010s, the expectations of the fanbase vastly outstripped Pitt’s reality as a turmoil-ridden team making a significant jump up in level of competition while dealing with a generations-long lack of significant success and more impactful programs nearby.
But that has changed. Narduzzi has risen the level of talent in the program and provided meaningful stability. He has won at a level unseen by his predecessors and put his team in positions to play and win meaningful football games into November.
Now, it’s time for more. The decision to go to Pickett early in his career as a starter has a chance to pay off. Lyke opened Pitt’s pocketbook to keep the coaching staff together. Narduzzi did a masterful job retaining Ford, Twyman, Damar Hamlin and Patrick Jones after all could have left for the NFL.
The schedule is as friendly as ever, with Notre Dame coming to Heinz Field as the only non-conference game that seems remotely losable and a crossover trip to Florida State catching the Seminoles with a first-year head coach, coming off a 6-7 season.
This is Pitt’s year. They just have to hope they get to play it.