Pitt hopes to be in mix for Coastal Division title, despite changes in backfield
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Pitt, like the other four ACC Coastal Division teams to earn bowl invitations in 2016, saw its starting quarterback depart after last season.
Consider it just the latest reason to believe there could be more Coastal chaos this year — and the Panthers could be the beneficiary.
Over the last four seasons, Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia Tech have taken turns atop the division. It's a stark contrast to the other half of the league, where either Clemson or Florida State has won the Atlantic Division every year since 2009.
“There's no standard set in the Coastal,” Pitt tackle Brian O'Neill said Friday at the ACC's football kickoff event. “Whereas Clemson in the Atlantic, you know. Florida State, you know. That's the standard. We haven't gotten there yet in the Coastal, and I'm looking forward to see if we can push ourselves up to the top.”
For the Panthers (8-5 in 2016) to do so, there are some obvious questions to answer.
One is at quarterback after the graduation of two-year starter Nathan Peterman. Another is at running back, where Pitt is blessed with former 1,000-yard rusher Qadree Ollison and experienced options in Darrin Hall and Chawntez Moss even after James Conner's departure to the NFL.
On defense, Pitt will try to improve against the pass, a problem that could be partially solved by not facing departed quarterbacks Jerod Evans (Virginia Tech), Brad Kaaya (Miami), Mitch Trubisky (North Carolina) and Deshaun Watson (Clemson) again this year.
But there's always the muddled Coastal to navigate. Even with some star power exiting, Virginia Tech boasts a sound defense. Georgia Tech's triple-option offense often creates headaches. Miami finally could earn its first trip to the ACC title game behind running back Mark Walton.
“I feel like it's like that every year,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “You can look at the Atlantic and say there's Clemson and Florida State over there, two maybe elite teams in the conference. When you look at the Coastal, I think from top to bottom it's better than the Atlantic. It's a battle every week.”
Even before Pitt begins its ACC schedule, it must deal with two familiar obstacles in the opening weeks of the season. The Panthers visit Penn State, which won the Big Ten last year, on Sept. 9 and then must visit an Oklahoma State team that rolled up 640 total yards in a victory at Pitt last year.
It leaves little time for the Panthers to waste when they convene for preseason camp later this month.
“We already know what we're doing the first week of camp,” O'Neill said. “We know on Day 1 what we're doing. It's not going to be we get to camp, and ‘OK, we're putting in this.' We know basically exactly how everything's going in the first week and a half or so just because there has to be that sense of urgency with this slate of games.”
As intriguing and challenging as those contests are, they won't decide the fate of the Panthers' season. The long-term aim is to claim the Coastal for the first time since entering the league in 2013.
With so many teams in the division dealing with their own quarterback conundrums, it's tough to peg a favorite heading into the year. Pitt, though, is certainly a candidate to have a say in the Coastal's outcome.
“It seems like for the last few years it's been wide open,” Panthers cornerback Avonte Maddox said. “But when you lose a quarterback, that's an important piece of the team and you have to replace it fast. It's been wide open, and we're going to see this year how it works out. I feel like we have a good chance.”
Patrick Stevens is a freelance writer.