For the first time in a long time, Pitt is entering the season riding high. The Panthers had their best season in 40 years in 2021, and while Kenny Pickett has traded in his blue and gold for black and gold next door, Pitt is looking to capitalize on the program momentum established by last year’s squad.
It won’t be easy, as the Panthers have a schedule full of pitfalls, starting with a rivalry game against the West Virginia Mountaineers. Pitt will also face a Tennessee team that probably feels like it should have beaten Pitt in 2021. The Panthers will go on the road to face two teams that did beat them last year in Western Michigan and Miami and have a challenging Atlantic Division crossover game at Louisville.
The only game on the schedule where Pitt is at a clear disadvantage on paper is at Miami, where the Hurricanes have quarterback Tyler Van Dyke back along with a strong defense and a new coaching staff under Mario Christobal that has won a lot of games.
Other than that, Pitt should be favored unless they start losing. That’s a different position for the Panthers to be in. Pat Narduzzi and company have embraced a “nobody believes in us” mentality over the years at Pitt. It’s hard to continue that mindset when you’re favored in nearly every game.
More so than the challenges of replacing Pickett, Jordan Addison and the other departures, being able to have success in the face of greater expectations is probably the biggest challenge for the program in 2022.
Pitt has been notorious for stumbling in games that it should win over the years, including last season against Western Michigan. What happens in a schedule chock full of those games? Really, it’s anyone’s guess.
If Narduzzi can keep these Panthers on the finely honed edge they developed in 2021 all season, it’s very reasonable that Pitt could be entering Hard Rock Stadium to face Miami with a zero in the loss column.
History, though, tells us that is unlikely. Tennessee probably would have beaten Pitt if Josh Heupel had chosen the right quarterback to play last fall. He won’t make that mistake again, and with a talented quarterback, his scheme can unravel Pitt’s defense with the best of them. Remember the UCF game in Orlando?
Pitt slugged its way to a three-point win the last time the Panthers faced Malik Cunningham and Louisville in 2020, but the Cardinals passer is older and wiser now, and Scott Satterfield seems a lot more comfortable in his surroundings with that offense.
There is also a trip to North Carolina — always a potential stumbling block — and another to Virginia as Pitt’s three most dangerous Coastal Division games and four toughest ACC tests all come on the road.
If Pitt gets just average quarterback play, the Panthers probably lose a couple of those games. They aren’t likely to get worse than that, as both starter Kedon Slovis and backup Nick Patti should be capable of clearing that bar.
But Pitt isn’t going to be so sharp as a team to win all of those games. If they’re going to, Slovis is probably going to have to go above and beyond and will the team to a victory or two.
Slovis was one of the top quarterbacks available in the transfer portal this offseason, and Pitt did all it could to put the team in a good place to replace Pickett. But players aren’t in the portal because they just had a ton of success at their last stop. Can Slovis be that player that wills Pitt to victory? Absolutely. We’ve seen it. But it’s probably expecting too much to think he definitely will be that at this step in the game.
The stumbles could come at any of the points I mentioned — or even elsewhere. After all, no one predicted a loss to Western Michigan last year. The saving grace for the Panthers is that Miami has been just as notorious if not more so when it comes to stubbing its toe on less-successful opponents down the stretch.
So, I’ll predict that Pitt starts 9-2, with a loss to Tennessee and one of their ACC road games, and that the game in Miami will be for the Coastal crown. Pitt can beat Miami, but hasn’t happened often recently, and Van Dyke is as good of a quarterback as the Hurricanes have had in a long time. So, I’ll predict a loss in the de facto Coastal title game.
That would leave Pitt with solid season, but a disappointing finish to cap a 9-3 year, with the upshot of what should be a decent bowl game and a chance to hit 10 wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since before I was born.
That might not be the prediction Pitt fans are looking for, but that should be enough to keep the success that Pickett and company had last from being a one-hit wonder and continue the positive momentum of the program. That’s the big job for Narduzzi in 2022, and I’d call this prediction a success if it comes to pass.