I noted this on twitter a few days ago, but I wanted to expand on it a bit further. 2016 could potentially be a special season for Pitt. All of the elements are there: experience, leadership, talent, depth, coaching, and opportunity. The national spotlight will be on Heinz this Saturday with the return of James Conner and it won’t leave with Penn State visiting the following weekend. Back to back road trips against ranked teams, Oklahoma State and UNC, pose big challenges.
Hypothetically, what if Pitt starts 4-0? A win over a rival and two ranked teams on the road plus the emotional angle of Conner would make the national media nuts. That would lead to a top 15 ranking with the easiest stretch of the schedule ahead.
Why is this not crazy?
On offense, eight of eleven starters are a junior or senior. The same amount of experience is on the defense and that excludes the most talented player, Jordan Whitehead. The only position that lacks proven experience is WR and there’s no talent shortage with that group. The most important position to have experience, QB, is led by senior Nate Peterman.
Has Pitt ever had a quieter camp? The only bad news was the players who can’t play for medical reasons, something nobody could have prevented. A lot of that comes down to the character of the team and their leaders. Not to continually dwell on Conner, but he has inspired his teammates and was widely respected prior to his diagnosis. Ejuan Price has seen this program go through a lot and took advantage of his sixth year for a reason.
The offense will be led by a former ACC Player of the Year. The defense will be led by a sophomore safety with NFL written all over him. The offensive line has at least two NFL caliber players on it (Bisnowaty and Johnson). While Pitt doesn’t have the talent FSU or Clemson has, the gap could be overtaken by experience and execution. There will be more than one draft pick next year, that’s a guarantee.
Other than QB, there isn’t a single player on this roster without a viable plan B in the event of injury. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be a drop, but Nate Peterman is the only player that couldn’t be schemed around in the event of an injury. Even Conner or Whitehead could get hurt and their respective units could work around it and still be successful. That’s not taking away from their talent, but praising the abilities of the players and coaches around them.
Coaching: Pitt went 8-4 in the regular season last year without a single senior who was drafted. The best player, James Conner, missed all but a quarter or so of the first game. A QB switch was made before conference play began. There wasn’t a single player on the roster that saw a record better than 7-6 during their tenure. How about some credit to the impressive coaching jobs done by Narduzzi’s staff? The entire staff, minus a change at OC, returns to Pitt in 2016.
Pitt has four opportunities in September to earn national attention, each bigger than the previous. The national media would love for Pitt to be a highly ranked team led by James Conner. Don’t underestimate the effect of media attention. It can keep players motivated, put fans in the stands, and help recruiting. What would Heinz Field look like against Marshall if a 4-0, top 15 team came back after a tough road trip? The last thing those fans witnessed in person was a win over rival Penn State.
I’m not saying it will happen. I’m saying it’s not crazy. OKST and UNC will be favored to beat Pitt, but neither is unbeatable. Clemson is the only team I have reservations about. But, even with a loss to Clemson, Pitt will still control its destiny in the ACC Coastal by beating everyone else. All of the pieces are in place for a special season, notably the emotional edge James Conner brings to the table. 9-3 or 10-2 and an ACC Coastal title? That’s a hell of a year two for a team that has only seen 10 wins once in my 30 years of life.
One prediction about this team that I’m positive will come true: they will never make it easy on an opponent.