As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team opponent preview each week over the spring/summer. This week, we’re previewing Syracuse’s matchup with Pitt on Nov. 5 with their major storylines.
Furthering the trend of 2021 being a strange year for the ACC, we come to the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Coming off a 6-5 record in 2020, the Panthers were expected to be a competitive team but not much else. They responded with an 11-3 campaign (their most wins in a season in 40 years), an ACC championship, and an appearance in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl against the Michigan State Spartans.
While they would lose that game to the Spartans 31-21, the 2021 season was undeniably a success beyond anything they could have imagined at the start of the year. Quarterback Kenny Pickett took a monumental leap forward, throwing for 4,319 yards and 42 TDs against only 7 picks, and nearly won himself a Heisman trophy in the process.
The defense was elite in many areas as well, ranking second in the nation in sacks at 3.86 per game and sixth in rushing defense, giving up only 89.3 rushing yards per game. Overall, the team performed well in nearly every area leading to a true “Cinderella” season.
WITH PICKETT GONE, WILL THE MAGIC REMAIN?
The biggest and most obvious question about Pitt heading into 2022 is whether the team can continue their success without Kenny Pickett at QB. Pickett was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the NFL Draft in April, the lone QB taken in the first round.
The good news for Pitt came via the transfer portal in former University of Southern California senior QB Kedon Slovis.
Slovis had his ups and downs at USC, his best year coming in 2019 when he threw for 3,502 yards and 30 TDs and his worst year being this past season when he split starting time with Jaxson Dart and ultimately suffered a leg injury to end the year. He finished 2021 with 2,153 passing yards, just 11 TDs and 8 picks.
Pitt also lost their top receiver from last year Jordan Addison (ironically, through the transfer portal to Slovis’s former team- USC), but returns nearly every other offensive starter which is good news for a team that ranked third in the country in scoring last year, with 41.4 points per game.
There’s a lot to like in Slovis as a talented prospect, but it’s concerning that his best years are seemingly behind him. However, with an experienced former NFL coach like Frank Cignetti Jr as his offensive coordinator and QB coach, it’s safe to expect a return to form for the former Heisman watch list candidate.
CAN THE DEFENSE CONTINUE OVER-PERFORMING?
While the offense was lighting up the scoreboard for the Panthers, the defense was able to pin their ears back and go into attack mode, and attack they did. Facing teams that were often in a huge deficit, Pitt’s defense was able to rank third in the nation in sacks with 54, as well as being the only team in the country to rack up over 400 sack yards.
The concern for the Panthers defense was more in the secondary, as they ranked just 115th in passing yards allowed at 264.3 ypg. Part of that can be blamed on having such large leads over teams and playing essentially prevent defense for many second halves of games, but you still would have liked to see some dominance there.
Pitt’s best corner from 2021 Damarri Mathis was taken in the fourth round by the Denver Broncos leaving the team without a true top option, but Marquis Williams returns with enough experience to hold his own while the other spot is determined over the summer.
Along the defensive line, Pitt is loaded with returning talent in Calijah Kancey and Habakkuk Baldonado. Kancey was a first team All-ACC defensive tackle with seven sacks and 13 tackles-for-loss, and is a surefire NFL-talent. Baldonado had nine sacks and 12 TFL’s and with the rest of the returning starters seems poised to continue that elite play into next year.
Overall, Pittsburgh is a well rounded team. While it’s true that they outperformed expectations and lost arguably their two most important pieces from last year’s dominant team, that performance was able to net them one of the top transfers in the country in Slovis. Head coach Pat Narduzzi has had the Panthers improving in every year that he’s been there, culminating in last year’s ACC Championship run, and seems well equipped to handle the transition of QBs to once again compete for an ACC title.