While the month of June is used to host recruits on official visits and build recruiting classes that can lead teams into the future, the start of the 2022 college football season is just ahead. And Pitt is still defending an ACC championship.
For as much as a “weak ACC” is sometimes unfairly brandished as an insult, Pitt does benefit from a soft schedule in 2022. Without the threat of Clemson, Wake Forest or North Carolina State from the Atlantic, Pitt has a favorable conference schedule. Now, a West Virginia-Tennessee stretch to open the season is much more challenging.
However, if Pitt can navigate a renewed rivalry and perhaps the toughest game on its schedule in back-to-back weeks, that will say a lot about this team. However, the opposite is also true. Losing early games on the schedule isn’t always a death sentence, but a loss in the first two weeks — especially to WVU — would hurt.
The schedule opens up following the Tennessee game, melting into games against Group of Five and FCS opponents before shifting to an ACC opening slate of Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Following a Week 7 bye, a road matchup with Louisville reopens Pitt’s schedule.
Pitt obviously will need to avoid games like Western Michigan in 2021, those games that have plagued Pitt in the past where lesser opponents sneak away with wins. And with a weaker ACC schedule and a non-conference schedule that’s finished after the first month, it’s a spot Pitt should find favorable.
Now, this is a very, very early prediction for a reason. A lot can, and will, happen between now and Sept. 1, but let’s take a look at where things stand now.
A very, very early look at each team on Pitt’s schedule in 2022, with a bye in Week 7:
Week 1: West Virginia
West Virginia was hit hard in the transfer portal, losing key offensive (Winston Wright Jr.) and defensive (Jackie Matthews, Daryl Porter, Josh Chandler-Semedo, Akheem Mesidor and Nicktroy Fortune) starters, but the portal did bring JT Daniels in as WVU’s new quarterback.
However, with just nine returning starters ahead of the 2022 season (six on offense and three on defense), it’s a largely new team that will be playing its first game together against Pitt.
It’s a team in flux, one that’s still searching for an identity under Neal Brown, but it’s also the Backyard Brawl. There’s no telling what could happen in a renewed rivalry between bitter foes, but Pitt is better on paper. Does that always matter? Well, no, look at the 2007 edition of the Brawl.
However, with a lot riding on Daniels to lead WVU’s depleted offense (also losing starting running back Leddie Brown to the NFL Draft process), while he’s a talented quarterback, he has struggled against strong pass rushes in his lengthy college career. Sound like something Pitt is equipped to handle?
Pitt needs to, and should, take an opening night win over WVU at Heinz Field — even if it’s a wild night to remember.
Pitt: 31, West Virginia: 21
Week 2: Tennessee
Joe Milton’s exit against Pitt last season opened the door for Hendon Hooker to step in as a new transfer from Virginia Tech, win the starting job with a strong performance and emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in college football.
Hooker wasn’t able to overcome Pitt in 2021, losing 41-34 off a late Brandon Hill interception at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, but after his performance against Pitt last season, he seemingly improved each and every week. And after spurning potential NFL Draft chances, he’s back again in 2022.
Tennessee is a strong team on paper, with tangible growth under head coach Josh Heupel in 2021 and strong returning talent this season. It’s a Tennessee team that has immense potential if all the pieces click. However, Tennessee is traveling to Heinz Field this season, and that could be all the difference.
Tennessee, led by the mobile Hooker, features a deep rushing attack. It’s a strong matchup — and early test — for Pitt’s top-ranked rush defense from 2021. The Vols return 15 starters from last season’s squad, with eight on offense, including Hooker and wide receiver Cedric Tillman, and a high-scoring affair is likely.
However, with the Vols’ new-ish offensive line and weakened — upon an already weak — secondary, Pitt is equipped to handle an early-season challenge from Tennessee. It’s a game that could be the difference in Pitt’s season.
Pitt: 35, Tennessee: 31
Week 3: Western Michigan
Kaleb Eleby and Skyy Moore aren’t coming back. Take a deep breath.
With just 49 percent of last season’s total production returning, including just 27 percent of offensive production, it’s a rebuilding year for the Broncos. Without an elite quarterback-wide receiver connection, WMU isn’t going to serve as the explosive threat it did last season.
Former Norwin star Jack Salopek and Corey Croomes form the new duo to watch in 2022, but with Salopek still fighting for the vacated quarterback spot, he remains a question mark. The redshirt freshman is a strong runner, but it remains to be seen whether he can handle the rigors of a college season — or even hold the job through the summer.
WMU’s offensive line has taken a hit, and a young, inexperienced offensive line will hit the field against Pitt in the third week of the 2022 season. While the Broncos’ defense is a much more experienced group, Pitt’s skill position talent should wear down the defense.
Pitt: 48, Western Michigan: 7
Week 4: Rhode Island
Former Pitt wide receiver John Vardzel transferred to Rhode Island this spring, and Rashad Battle expressed his conflicted feelings in meeting a former teammate as legitimate opponents.
See you Sep 24🥲 https://t.co/0M0Ic1QgeH
— Rashad Battle (@RashadBattle15) April 13, 2022
Pitt played New Hampshire as its lone FCS opponent in 2021 and won by … 70 points. I’m not saying Pitt will win by 10 touchdowns against Rhode Island in 2022, but there shouldn’t be much of a challenge — if any.
Despite a solid 7-4 season last season, the Rams are thoroughly outmatched across the board.
Leading passer Kasim Hill returns for another season, and Vardzel could factor into an experienced receiving corps, but Pitt is too talented and too deep to be seriously challenged. And with the two teams meeting in Week 4, coming off three weeks of football and the ACC schedule ahead, Pitt should roll.
Pitt: 62, Rhode Island: 10
Week 5: Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech has also been hit hard by the transfer portal since the end of the 2021 season, notably losing star running back Jahmyr Gibbs to Alabama, and there are a lot of questions left unanswered for a team that went 3-9 last season.
It’s tough to undersell Gibbs’ impact at Georgia Tech in 2021, as the former four-star recruit compiled 1,211 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns, doubling up his closest position player in scrimmage yards. Gibbs left for Alabama over the winter, and he left GT scrambling for answers.
Geoff Collins’s squad is still searching for an identity, coming off of three straight three win seasons since former head coach Paul Johnson retired — taking the triple option with him. With double-digit losses to the transfer portal across the board, GT will look even different in 2022, and new offensive coordinator Chip Long will have his work cut out for him in replacing Gibbs.
It looks like another tough season for Collins and GT is in the cards.
Pitt: 38, Georgia Tech: 17
Week 6: Virginia Tech
In the first year of new head coach Brent Pry’s tenure, wouldn’t Virginia Tech like to have Hendon Hooker still in the fold?
With a new quarterback (following Hooker’s transfer ahead of the 2020 season and Braxton Burmeister’s ahead of the 2022 season) and the loss of last season’s top running back, wide receiver and tight end in 2022, the Hokies’ offense is going through a massive transition — as is the rest of the team.
And the defense, which faltered down the stretch after making a statement against Sam Howell and North Carolina in Week 1 last season, wasn’t able to generate a consistent pass rush throughout the season and lost top cornerback Jermaine Waller.
Nearly 80 percent of VT’s defensive production is returning in 2022, but just over 50 percent is returning offensively — and while the Hokies dipped into the portal, there isn’t a ton of proven talent.
The Hokies haven’t been able to rise to previous ACC heights in recent seasons, and with a team in transition, they likely won’t again in 2022.
Pitt: 31, Virginia Tech: 10
Week 8: Louisville
There’s something brewing in Louisville, and it’s not just the bourbon. One of the strongest recruiting classes in recent memory is being put together, and quarterback Malik Cunningham’s return gives hope to a team that couldn’t quite put the pieces together in 2021.
Louisville’s 2022 squad feels like an ACC dark horse, especially if the Cardinals’ problems closing out games can be rectified in 2022. With an offense that returns Cunningham and the top two rushers, Pitt’s defense will be in for a test.
Despite a couple of losses in the receiving corps, high-profile Tyler Harrell to Alabama and Jordan Watkins to Ole Miss, Louisville’s SP+ score, a ranking by ESPN’s Bill Connelly, ranks in the top 15 in the country.
Louisville is an experienced, seemingly on-the-rise program, and with a game in Louisville, this feels like a game where Cunningham could get hot and use a hot home crowd to pick up an upset.
Pitt: 28, Louisville: 31
Week 9: North Carolina
Mack Brown has put some elite recruiting classes together at North Carolina over the past few seasons, but that hasn’t led to consistent on-field success.
Star quarterback Sam Howell is off to the NFL, replaced by either Jacolby Criswell or top 2021 recruit Drake Maye, and the offense as a whole has taken a hit. Despite Josh Downs in place as an All-ACC wide receiver, All-ACC running back Ty Chandler left for the NFL.
As a whole UNC returns 63 percent of its 2021 production, ranking 75th in college football, and the transfer portal has been ho-hum for the Tar Heels.
National championship-winning head coach Gene Chizik is back at UNC, after a half-decade hiatus away from the sport, as the new defensive coordinator, taking over a unit that was porous in allowing points (32.1) and yards per play (6.11) in 2021. So, he has his work cut out for him in a conference that features strong quarterback play.
UNC returns 78 percent of its defensive production but just under half of its offensive production. Despite a road matchup in Chapel Hill, Pitt takes it.
Pitt: 34, North Carolina: 20
Week 10: Syracuse
Sean Tucker is legit, and if Syracuse is able to string together a surprise 2022 season, it’ll be because of the multi-talented running back.
Tucker ran for nearly 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 20 passes as a redshirt freshman, and the stud offensive weapon should be just as good — if not better — in 2022.
But his season-low in yards, yards per game and touchdowns in 2021? All against Pitt. Pitt’s defense is well equipped to deal with the star halfback, and with Garrett Shrader back at quarterback, the Orange’s offense isn’t exactly equipped to support Tucker through the air.
Syracuse returns a strong foundation (80 percent of total production) from last season’s 5-7 squad, and while the Orange will be better in 2022, Pitt is still a strong bet to handle Syracuse’s offensive potential.
However, if there’s a trap game on Pitt’s schedule, even at Heinz Field, ‘Cuse isn’t a bad bet.
Pitt: 28, Syracuse: 17
Week 11: Virginia
This is a tough one. Virginia lost its head coach, a lot of production from the 2021 season and returns just 51 percent of last season’s production. But Brennan Armstrong is still around.
Armstrong gashed Pitt’s defense for nearly 500 yards in 2021, shelling Pitt for a season-high 481 yards (to go along with three touchdowns). He’s back in 2022, but Virginia has been decimated by losses throughout the program.
Tony Elliott has taken over as Virginia’s head coach in 2022, the long-time Clemson assistant replacing retiring Bronco Mendenhall, and he’s joined by new offensive coordinator Des Kitchings. UVa’s offensive line has taken a major hit, but Dontayvion Wicks is back as Armstrong’s target. However, the run game is still a major question, even with former four-star Cody Brown entering the program.
UVa is way down on returning talent, just 51 percent of 2021’s production back in 2022 (good for 123rd best in college football), and it’s tough to imagine a repeat of last season’s offense that scored 35 points per game.
However, with Armstrong anchoring the Cavs, providing a legitimate star at college football’s most important position, UVa is a wild card all season.
Pitt: 42, Virginia: 27
Week 12: Duke
Duke is a mess. Mike Elko’s task of completely rejuvenating Duke’s offense and defense is already hard enough without accounting for the losses on offense and defense.
Mataeo Durant accounted for nearly 1,500 yards last season (1,241 on the ground — 57 percent of all of Duke’s rushing yards last season — and 256 through the air) and he added 11 touchdowns. He’s a Pittsburgh Steeler now. Jake Bobo led Duke with 794 yards and a touchdown on 74 receptions last season. He’s a UCLA Bruin now.
Duke is one of the schools that returns less than half of its 2021 production, ranking 125th of 131 college football teams. Coming off a 3-9 season, another three win season is more likely than not.
It’s going to be a long, long season for Duke in 2022.
Pitt: 54, Duke: 7
Week 13: Miami
Of course, the day after Thanksgiving, Pitt will travel to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami to play Miami. And Miami should be Pitt’s biggest challenger to the ACC Coastal in 2022.
Tyler Van Dyke threw for 426 yards and three touchdowns last season at Heinz Field, leading Miami to an upset over Pitt, and with new head coach Mario Cristobal in place to lead a new-look Canes’ squad, with former Michigan assistant and reigning Broyles Award winner Josh Gattis in place as offensive coordinator, it’s a new era.
The Hurricanes return just over 70 percent of last season’s total production, including 80 percent of all defensive production, so it’s a veteran team. But the offensive line and defensive line will both need to replace losses, and leading wide receivers Charleston Rambo and Mike Harley are gone.
With the renewed expectation on Miami this season (although, I guess that can be said before every season), and a home game against Pitt in what could be one of the biggest ACC games of the season, a back and forth game goes to Miami because of Van Dyke.
Pitt: 28, Miami: 31