In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re thinking about optimism for Pitt football, a new most-hated opponent and more.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
And then there was Pitt
Let’s talk Pittsburgh sports for a minute.
You’ve got the pro football team. They’re fresh off arguably the most embarrassing first-round playoff bounce since Demaryius Thomas made it look like Tim Tebow could win a playoff game.
You’ve got the pro hockey team. They’re fresh off a first-round bounce of their own and once again we’re talking about the sun setting on that franchise’s run.
You’ve got the pro baseball team. They’re doing things like this.
Who does that leave?
You know the answer.
It’s Pitt football. And it just might be the most optimistic major sports team in town.
That’s wild, man. And kind of frightening. And maybe a little bewildering.
First of all, you have to think about last-game bias. I’ve talked about that before and it’s a real thing: how you finish a season/postseason goes a long way to influencing the tone of the offseason. The classic example is Pitt football post-2007 vs. post-2008: after the 2007 season, Pitt football had a ton of hype based on one win despite going 5-7. After the 2008 season, the mood couldn’t be worse despite the Panthers winning nine games, and it was all because of the last game.
Right now, the Steelers’ last game couldn’t have gone worse, and the Penguins’ last game/series was pretty disappointing, too. The Pirates…well, they’re the Pirates.
Pitt football, on the other hand, is in a different spot. There was the season-ending win at Georgia Tech, complete with an effective running game – shocking as that may be – and before that, the Panthers had a couple wins that were impressive in their own right.
Sure, they got crushed by Notre Dame and Clemson, but their final four games included a win at Florida State that saw Pitt bounce back both in the game and in the season, a win against Virginia Tech when the Panthers were missing a bunch of starters due to COVID and the aforementioned season-ending win at Georgia Tech.
Nobody is going to write a book about those wins, and you certainly can’t pretend like the Notre Dame and Clemson wins didn’t happen. But on the whole, it was a relatively strong finish to the season. Add in Kenny Pickett’s decision to come back for another season and another good recruiting class – the highest-ranked class of Pat Narduzzi’s tenure at Pitt – and you’ve got some hype building up.
Then you look at the schedule, which should lend itself to eight wins as a starting point, and you see the circumstances lining up for a rather unexpected situation:
Pitt football, for all of its shortcomings, issues and missed opportunities, just might be the most optimistic team in town.
Known good, known bad and unknownI was thinking about the Pitt football team this week – that happens often – and I started thinking of it in slightly different terms than I have before.
Rather than think about what units have improved or key losses and additions or those types of means to evaluate a team, I started thinking about separating the position groups into categories.
Basically, there are three categories: the known good, the known bad and the unknown.
Those should be pretty self-explanatory. The known good are the position groups with a proven history of effective play. The known bad are the position groups with a proven history of ineffective play. And the unknown are the groups that are…well…unknown.
And once I started thinking about the team in those terms, some things emerged. Primarily, I realized that this team is relying on a decent amount of unknowns this season.
To some extent, that’s always the case. It’s college football, where turnover is inevitable and you’re always going to be replacing key players. Most seasons will hinge on the performances and progressions of previously unproven guys.
With Pitt, though, I really see four position groups that I would put in a “known” category – good or bad.
On the good side, I think you have the quarterback and the linebackers. I say “quarterback” in the singular because there is one proven quarterback in the bunch. But he’s pretty solid and he’s got plenty of experience, so I’ll count him as a known good.
At linebacker, you’ve got the entire group back, plus one starter who missed most of last season due to injury and several young players who look like potential studs. I’m counting the linebackers as a known good, and I’ve said it before that they might make up the strongest position group on the team.
On the other side – the known bad – you’ve got the tight ends and the offensive line. I don’t mean to be harsh, but both of those position groups have struggled for quite some time. Now, that comes with caveats about progress and development and all of that, and I do buy into the promise of a better tomorrow with both groups. But based on what we’ve seen, the history points in one direction, and it’s not good.
So those four position groups fit into the known categories, which leaves the running backs, the receivers, the defensive ends, the defensive tackles, the cornerbacks, the safeties and the specialists unknown.
Actually, the one exception I would make there is the defensive tackles: I don’t tend to think of that group as being made up of proven commodities, but they have everyone back with a bunch of experience, so they’re probably “known solid” at the very least. We could probably say the same about the cornerbacks, too: those guys have played and look pretty solid, too.
Elsewhere among the unknowns, I think there are varying degrees of potential. Like the receivers: We know Jordan Addison is legit, Taysir Mack has had more than a few moments, Jared Wayne and Shocky Jacques-Louis have roles they can play and I think Jaylon Barden can be a stud, so I like that group. I think they can be pretty good. But outside of Addison and maybe Mack, there isn’t a lot that’s proven.
The running backs are similar: they don’t have anyone who has achieved at the level of Addison, but they do have a bunch of guys who have played and all eyes will be on Israel Abanikanda this season.
On defense, I think a lot of the potential rests on the perceived strength of the recruiting and the expectation of continuity. The defensive ends and the safeties are both stocked with guys who looked like pretty good prospects and have shown occasional flashes in the opportunities they’ve had over the last year or two.
With the ends and the safeties, I would say that both have a strong chance of going from unknown to known good by the end of the year.
Of course, Pitt’s success in 2021 is going to depend on the known goods continuing to be good, the known bads being less bad and the unknowns sliding into the known good category.
On the diamond Tough one for Pitt baseball on Thursday night.
The Panthers, after being one of the surprise teams in all of college baseball for the first half of the season, stumbled following a COVID pause and lost seven straight to close the regular-season schedule. That left them in the unenviable position of needing to have a perfect week of pool play at the ACC Tournament in Charlotte in order to advance to the semifinals on Saturday.
Things started off well on Tuesday night when Pitt beat North Carolina. But on Thursday, the Panthers faced N.C. State, who has become quite a fly in the ointment for Pitt (more on that in a minute). Matt Gilbertson, who has been outstanding this season, threw a beaut, giving up three runs on four hits while striking out 10 and walking just four in a complete-game effort.
Unfortunately, the Panthers could only manage two runs on five hits, and they lost 3-2.
It’s not a bad loss, by any means. N.C. State is a top-30 team who also had Pitt’s number in a late-season three-game sweep. But every win in Charlotte was valuable for the Panthers, who are fighting for a spot in the NCAA Baseball Tournament.
They’ve got a strong resume, even if the 23-20 overall record and 16-17 mark in conference play doesn’t show it.
I’m going to defer to Mike here because I think he follows college baseball closer than I do. But to add context to his tweet, all five of the teams he mentioned are in the RPI top 50. And you can add North Carolina, since the Tar Heels are in the top 50, too; that gives Pitt a record of 15-4 against those six top-50 teams.
Of course, the counterpoint is that Pitt went 1-2 against Duke, 1-2 against Notre Dame and 0-4 against N.C. State; those are all top-50 teams as well. But it’s still a 17-12 record against top-50 teams, which seems pretty strong.
So we’ll see. It has definitely been a good season for Mike Bell and the Panthers – and maybe the beginning of something special with the program.
TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE
What’s up with N.C. State?
Yes, Pitt lost to N.C. State on Thursday night in a rough defeat that ended the Panthers’ ACC Tournament, but that was just the latest blow against the Wolfpack – who have not-so-quietly and not-so-recently become a major thorn in Pitt’s side.
And that goes for almost every Pitt sport.
Since joining the ACC, Pitt has only faced N.C. State twice in football, and both were losses. There was the 2017 game; that was simply a bad season for the Panthers. And there was last year’s game, a result of the ACC’s adjusted-for-COVID schedule that took the Wolfpack, who weren’t supposed to face Pitt, and sent them to Heinz Field for a matchup that didn’t go the home team’s way.
The men’s basketball team hasn’t done much better since joining the conference. Jamie Dixon led Pitt to a win over N.C. State in January 2014; the Panthers have lost nine in a row since then and are 1-10 overall against the Wolfpack. The women’s hoops team is in the same boat: 1-6 against N.C. State in ACC games and losers of five straight.
It doesn’t end there. The baseball team has never beat N.C. State in conference play; this year’s late-season three-game sweep and subsequent ACC Tournament loss dropped Pitt to 0-13 against the Wolfpack. The softball team did win eight of its first 15 games against N.C. State since joining the conference but has lost four in a row since then. And the wrestling squad has a 2-6 record against N.C. State in ACC matches, including losing the last two.
As it stands right now, only the men’s soccer team and the women’s volleyball team have winning records against N.C. State since joining the ACC. The volleyball team is 9-2 with a current four-game winning streak; the men’s soccer team is 2-1-1 and has won the last two.
The women’s soccer team, meanwhile, is 3-3 against N.C. State.
So those three have done okay. But football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, softball and wrestling have a combined 35-game losing streak against N.C. State as a conference opponent (I add that caveat because we could extend the losing streak further back, like Pitt’s 2009 football loss).
I don’t know: when I think about the teams that have been the biggest annoyance for Pitt, N.C. State doesn’t come immediately to mind. But perhaps it should.
I can’t figure out exactly why beating N.C. State has been so tough to beat. Sure, the Wolfpack have had guys like Nyheim Hines and T.J. Warren, but at some point, you would think a game would go Pitt’s way.
It’s not even like N.C. State has been the toast of the ACC since 2013. The Wolfpack won the conference women’s basketball tournament in 2020, but that’s about it for large-scale success.
The baseball series this season was particularly crushing. It wasn’t the only time Pitt got swept late in the schedule, but that three-game loss to the Wolfpack sent the Panthers plummeting in the ACC standings and put them in the unenviable position of needing a perfect week to get into the semifinals of the conference tournament. And, of course, when it came time for Pitt to bow out of the tournament, it came at the hands of N.C. State.
Who do you hate the most in the ACC?
Building off that last topic…
I think in the last couple weeks, the dislike for N.C. State has come into focus, and I suspect that we’ll revisit it again when the men’s basketball team faces the Wolfpack next season. But is N.C. State really the most hated ACC opponent for Pitt fans?
That one seems like a tough sell to me. And yet, I don’t know which school I would put that title on, so I posted a poll on the message boards at Panther-Lair.com asking a simple question:
Which ACC team do you hate the most?
I mostly focused on the six Coastal Division teams plus Syracuse, since the Orange are, by the ACC’s designation, Pitt’s “rival,” and then I allowed a write-in option for any other Atlantic Division opponent, you know, in case there’s somebody who really doesn’t care for Wake Forest or Boston College.
(Although, on the football side, BC has been an annoyance the last two seasons thanks the Eagles handing the Panthers a couple of bad losses.)
I don’t think I was too surprised by the results. Virginia Tech “won” the poll, with North Carolina not too far behind. I get it in both cases. The Tar Heels are a blue blood in basketball, which puts a target on their back, and UNC’s six-year streak of defeating Pitt in football became a joke around 2016 and a downright disgrace in 2017 and 2018.
It was little wonder that the team celebrated like it did after the overtime win in 2019.
Still, there’s something about Virginia Tech, and that’s been the case since the two teams used to meet as Big East opponents. The Panthers have a 9-11 all-time record in football against the Hokies, but that includes a 1-7 mark in the first eight games of the series starting in 1993. Since then, Pitt has lost just four games to Virginia Tech and holds a perfect .500 record against VT – 4-4 – in ACC play.
There have been good storylines in a bunch of those games, too. 2014 saw Pitt come out with a retooled offense after an off week that helped beat VT to end a three-game losing streak on the season. Pat Narduzzi’s first game against the Hokies was a fourth-quarter win in a Blacksburg hurricane. The next year, Narduzzi earned himself a fine from the ACC after criticizing the officiating in the post-game of a loss.
In 2017, Pitt couldn’t score from the 1 on four tries and lost in Blacksburg. In 2018, the Panthers positively throttled the Hokies behind a monster rushing performance. In 2019, VT repaid the favor with a 28-0 win that seemed like 82-0. And last year, Pitt went to Heinz Field with multiple starters out due to COVID protocols and turned what felt like a sure loss into a 33-point win.
We’re at a point now where you just never know what’s going to happen against Virginia Tech, but it’s almost guaranteed to be interesting. And when you have a series that goes back and forth like that – with a little animosity thrown in for good measure – then you get a good, old-fashioned rivalry.
That’s just football, I know, but let’s be honest: most of the dislike and hate that build a good rivalry come from football and basketball. In fact, I think if we narrowed the poll to “most hated ACC basketball opponent,” Syracuse might take the win. Those games in the fall tend to dominate, though, and the biggest rivals are usually the ones that you see on the football field. And Virginia Tech is probably it for Pitt right now.
Next weekend will be quiet
For the final item in this week’s dispatch, we’ll turn our focus to recruiting.
June 1 is a big day. That will be the first time since the first week of March 2020 that coaches can host recruits for visits. And everybody’s gearing up: schools all over the country are hosting barbecues and recruiting parties and any other reason they can come up with to get kids on campus.
Pitt’s doing it. The coaches have lined up some of the top prospects in western Pa. to visit that day. (We previewed them here). And two days after that, it will finally be official visit season once again.
June 3-5 is going to be Pitt’s first official visit weekend (even though it’s Thursday-Saturday) since P.J. O’Brien took an official visit at the end of January 2020. We’ve got a preview of the upcoming official visits here, but there’s one thing that stands out.
Of the eight recruits scheduled to take official visits to Pitt next week, one – Sean FitzSimmons – is committed to the Panthers, but the seven uncommitted targets all have something in common:
They all have more official visits scheduled after Pitt.
Now, there have been plenty of instances in the past where recruits had future visits scheduled but canceled them after deciding to commit, so we can’t rule anything out. But given that nobody has been able to take any visits in roughly 15 months, I’m going to wager that a lot of kids in the 2022 class try to take as many official visits as they can.
So I’ll guess that those other seven recruits – Tyreese Fearbry, Dominique McKenzie, Brian Parker, Leyton Nelson, Travious Lathan, Marcus Peterson and Ryland Gandy – all stick to their plans to take additional visits over the course of the month.
It’s good for Pitt that those recruits chose Pitt for their first official visits, and I think Pitt will ultimately end up landing some of those guys, but the coaches will probably have to wait.
That’s not to say there will be nothing going on next weekend: we’ll have interviews with the recruits who visit to see what they thought. But there might not be as many Pat Narduzzi tweets as we’ve seen in previous years on June official visit weekends.