Pitt’s 2013 record (7-6) was uninspiring after a 3-1 start offered a fantastic opportunity for head coach Paul Chryst‘s squad to break free from the barriers of mediocrity (Pitt is 19-20 since 2011) and make a statement upon their arrival to their new conference — similarly to the early return the SEC collected with Missouri and Texas A&M.
Despite this disappointment, optimism is certainly not lost on the Pittsburgh campus. The Panthers have a more manageable 2014 schedule than usual thanks to the omission of several ACC heavyweights and return several key players from a winning team.
That being said, let’s examine the Panthers’ offense, defense and schedule for the upcoming season.
For the second consecutive season, Pitt will start a new starting QB as sophomore Chad Voytik takes over the reigns for Tom Savage. Although Voytik only has 11 career passing attempts, he earned some respect and gained confidence after leading the Panthers to a Little Caesars Bowl victory while filling in for the injured Savage.
The signal caller won’t be left on an island to fend for himself, either. Sophomore running back James Conner has the talent to play both sides of the ball, and Pitt might need him to do so. The old-school bruiser earned a 5.5 yard-per-carry average (799 rushing yards) in 2013 and finished on a high note with 229 yards on the ground in Pitt’s bowl win, but he’s also a valuable commodity on the defensive line, where the squad is thin on production.
Voytik’s other crucial security blanket comes in the form of true sophomore receiver Tyler Boyd, who led Pitt in receptions (85), receiving yards (1,174) and touchdowns (7). However, the unit’s second-most productive pass-catcher, Devin Street, has graduated, meaning someone else will need to step up to avert attention from Boyd if he’s going to match, let alone improve, on his 2013 numbers.
While the Panthers return four offensive linemen, they need to show a lot of improvement if their return is going to be viewed as anything positive.
Both lines appear to be question marks for Pittsburgh — something that could cost them in a couple games. The loss of DT Aaron Donald is clearly something you don’t just make up, and while Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Darryl Render are solid players on the interior, it remains to be seen how Pitt improves their pass rush after totaling just 24 sacks with Donald (who accounted for 11).
Pitt has a star at linebacker in Anthony Gonzalez (79 tackles, one interception), but the defense needs to get their paws on more loose balls in 2014 after finishing 107th in creating turnovers in 2013. Fellow senior linebacker Todd Thomas (72 tackles, six tackles-for-loss) will assist with the development of true sophomore MLB Matt Galambos (38 tackles), who becomes a full-time starter for the group in 2014.
2013’s leading tackler, SS Jason Hendricks, is gone, but FS Ray Vinopal returns to solidify the defensive backfield after totaling 83 tackles, six pass break-ups and three interceptions as a junior. CB Lafayette Pitts, who also returns kicks, will be an x-factor, as the redshirt junior has just one career interception in 25 starts.
The Panthers’ schedule isn’t as easy as it is being hyped, but they definitely lucked out, as ACC title contenders Florida State and Clemson, along with newcomers Louisville and Notre Dame, are absent. However, there appear to be few layup wins.
Although three of their toughest games, along with another challenge against Syracuse, come at home, there is considerable depth in the ACC in 2014. The Panthers’ toughest conference games come against the middle-of-the-pack squads, but all of them have the potential for eight-plus wins. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, are legitimate contenders to win the Big 10 West division.
When taking this into account and factoring in Pitt’s question marks at QB as well as on both lines, it’s difficult to see an ACC title game berth in sight. However, an eight-win regular season with a chance for a ninth in a bowl game is a good possibility.