I have to admit, I was wrong about the 2020 college football season. I did not think that on Sept. 12, 2020, I would be preparing to start my sixth season of covering Pitt football at Heinz Field.
I did not think think the schools could keep transmission rates down enough amongst the student body, I didn’t think teams could do a good enough job of isolating their players and I didn’t think universities would want to accept the risk that comes with those first two things.
As games around the country continue to be canceled and played on with several players missing from some teams, I was certainly right about the first two, but I underestimated the amount of potential risk colleges were willing to undertake when it comes to playing college football.
Pat Narduzzi did not share that sentiment. In pretty much every time I spoke with Narduzzi from the time the pandemic hit in March, he was steadfast in his approach that there was going to be college football played this season. He attacked the problem with the mindset that Pitt needed to prepare to play a near-normal football season, and if things didn’t work out, then all they would have wasted is some time and energy.
In a season where there certainly could be some strange results — and already have been, starting with BYU’s lambasting of a normally capable Navy squad on Monday — Narduzzi’s mindset, to me, seems like the most successful one for a head coach. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the safest plan of action for everyone involved, but we’ve already established that risks are being taken. Games are being played. I think Narduzzi’s mindset will put Pitt in a good spot to compete — as long as they can keep their team on the field.
When it comes to evaluating Pitt’s chances in 2020, so much of it does seem to fall to the head coach. There have been seasons where Pitt has had more top-flight offensive talent, such as 2015, with Tyler Boyd, James Conner and Nate Peterman, but on the whole, this has to be considered Narduzzi’s most-talented Pitt team.
The Panthers have experienced starters and quality depth at nearly every position, to the point that some of their best 2020 recruits — such as No. 3 player in the state Dayon Hayes from Westinghouse — are going to have a hard time finding the field this season.
It would not surprise me if any of a dozen Pitt players ended up on a postseason all-conference team, and they could come at any number of positions, and there does not appear to be a position group on the entire team that is sorely lacking talent or experience.
No, this seems a year where if Pitt is going to disappoint, that disappointment is more likely to come from those in polos and headsets than those in shoulder pads.
I wrote in February, after Narduzzi decided to return to Pitt, rebuffing an offer from Michigan State, that he is a good coach and a good fit for Pitt, and I still believe those things.
But Narduzzi also has not always given his team the best chance to win with his in-game decisions.
With the most talented Pitt squad yet, I’m tempted to predict a high win total. I don’t think there’s a team outside of Clemson that will completely overmatch the Panthers on the field this season. But I haven’t seen them consistently perform up to their talent level under Narduzzi, either.
Pitt’s loss at Penn State last season is a touchstone for many on this topic, and deservedly so, as Narduzzi’s abhorrent late-game strategy almost certainly cost Pitt a chance at victory.
But that’s not the only time Pitt underperformed in 2019. They were blown out by a not-all-that-good Virginia squad and looked totally unprepared in the season opener, lost at home to an extremely average Boston College team and needed some late-game heroics from Kenny Pickett to avoid being upset by Eastern Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl.
This season, Pitt will have chances to face teams they’re clearly better than, with NC State and Syracuse coming to Heinz Field, a return trip to Boston College and a visit to Georgia Tech on the docket in addition to Saturday’s opener against Austin Peay.
They’ll also have some teams on the docket that figure to be more evenly matched with, like Louisville, Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech.
They have the talent level to run the table with those nine games. They also have shown the capability to lose any of them, even Saturday’s opener.
For the purposes of predicting their season record, I think Pitt should lose to Clemson and Notre Dame, beat the first five teams I listed and split the other four, for a 7-4 season record.
That’s my prediction, and while I like the number, I somehow find it unlikely that it will go down as I predicted. There’s surely to be some unexpected victories and almost certainly an ugly defeat.
It seems that’s status quo for Pitt, and in a year with so little of it anywhere else, I’ll take some comfort in that.