PITTSBURGH — In 2020, Pitt started the season a promising 3-0, with a dominant win over Austin Peay and the team’s first win in a battle of ranked teams in over a decade with a home victory of Louisville on Sept. 26.
The Panthers were ranked for a third consecutive week coming into a home game against NC State, and were favored by two touchdowns against the visiting Wolfpack. Pitt dropped the ball, losing 30-29 to NC State at Heinz Field. A week later, a missed extra point cost them in overtime at Boston College, Kenny Pickett was injured, and any chance for a successful season went down the tubes.
A lot of things happened to a lot of us in 2020. There was, after all, a pandemic. There was no spring football, a weird, disjointed training camp, no fans in the stands, inconsistent practice schedules, players that were unavailable due to COVID-19 and contact tracing, and just a general inconsistency throughout college football and all of sports.
While the pandemic is not gone, those things will no longer be reasons for teams to lose games in 2021. Most players are vaccinated, teams have gone through a full spring and summer training camps, and there will be fans back in the stands this Saturday at Heinz Field. We’re as close to back to normal as we’re going to get any time soon.
So when Pitt starts the 2021 season, the seventh under Pat Narduzzi, what happened in 2020 won’t be acceptable.
The Panthers begin the season with the most forgiving non-conference schedule Narduzzi has seen. The Panthers are 38-point favorites over UMass on Saturday. They visit a Tennessee team ravaged by transfers with a new head coach, and then play Western Michigan and New Hampshire. Pitt should be 4-0 entering ACC play, and a first-week conference game against Georgia Tech shouldn’t stand in the way of Pitt’s first 5-0 start in recent memory.
There are tough games on Pitt’s schedule. A trip to Virginia Tech on Oct. 16 is rarely easy, and Clemson, Miami and North Carolina, who were all ranked in the preseason polls, will come to Heinz Field. The season will not be a walk-through for the Panthers, and no one should expect it to be. They will lose games, probably a few. No Pitt fan should despair if the Panthers can’t beat Clemson, or even if they struggle with talented teams like Miami and North Carolina.
The standard for success for the 2021 Pitt Panthers should be simple: let this be the year that the Panthers do not beat themselves. No losses as two-touchdown home favorites. No stumbles against teams that Pitt should easily beat.
Will that happen? It remains to be seen. That has been the thing that Pitt has not been able to do to get over the hump. It’s nearly the same thing I wrote at this time last year, when I predicted a 7-4 season for the Panthers that proved to be just slightly optimistic.
But this year, the stakes are higher. There will not be the same upset-happy environment. If Pitt significantly underachieves once again, there will be consequences. Narduzzi seems to know it. Asked about his seven seasons at helm at Pitt on Monday, he said “they don’t care what happened in the first six,” as if to emphasize the what have you done for me lately environment of college football.
But in reality, Pitt has underachieved record-wise in most of his first six seasons. And people do care and they do remember. Most of that tenure has been positive for Pitt. He’s brought professionalism and stability to the head coach position. He’s brought home notable victories and a division title. The team is unbelievably more talented than it was when he took over. He’s done a ton of positive things for the program.
This year, the schedule lines up for Pitt’s best season under Narduzzi. The way the schedule breaks down, Pitt should go about 9-3 in 2021. We’ll see if they can live up expectations for a change.