Tim Benz: Pitt is stuck in the middle with Pat Narduzzi
One of the easiest things to do in sports is throw dirt on a college football team if it loses its opener.
Especially if that loss is at home, in conference and against a beatable opponent.
With only 12 games on the schedule, if a team drops a contest like that to open the season, it can feel like the sky is falling before Labor Day weekend is finished.
Despite losing 30-14 to Virginia on Saturday at Heinz Field, Pitt isn’t getting that treatment from me.
Sure, it was a bad loss.
Actually, instant retraction there.
It wasn’t a bad loss. Virginia was 8-5 last year, with a Belk Bowl shutout over South Carolina. They are predicted to win the ACC Coastal Division this season. The Cavaliers are a quality squad.
However, it was a crucial loss. For a team as perpetually mediocre as the Panthers, they sure hung their hat on that ACC Coastal crown from year ago to get fans fired up. It was quite the vindication for a 7-7 record. Falling to the most likely team to steal that title was a major blow early in the schedule.
Let’s call out the Coastal for what it is, though: a painfully average division that basically serves no other purpose than providing a walkover victory for Clemson in the ACC title game.
Therefore, Pitt’s overall forecast hasn’t changed much. It still can cobble together seven wins and maybe claim the honor of again being an appetizer for the Tigers in another ACC championship game.
So we don’t have to turn out Heinz Field’s lights on Saturdays already.
Since, you know, they bothered to turn them on in the first place.
In the grand scheme of things, the Panthers’ loss isn’t necessarily an indication of how the season will unfold. Is there that much difference between 7-5 and 6-6?
No. But the Panthers’ failure to win such a game is an indictment of their ability to take a meaningful step forward.
We all expect Pitt to be in the 6- to 8-win range every year. Since the start of the 1983 season, the Panthers have exceeded eight victories three times (2002, ’08, ’09).
If they pop into double digits, which they’ve done only once since 1981, it will be a surprise.
Which leads me to ask, when do we get to be surprised again? Ever?
Since Pat Narduzzi took over as coach, Pitt fans constantly say: “Narduzzi has them pointed in the right direction. Narduzzi has them on the verge of taking that next step. Narduzzi has the right system in place for that program to grow.”
By what measure? When? Where is the evidence?
Narduzzi has two seasons above .500 on his resume and no bowl wins, and his teams have topped out no higher than No. 22 in the AP poll.
That’s why I ask, again, what direction are they heading? Does neutral count as a direction?
The loss to Virginia is more proof the program is still stuck in the same place it has been for about 35 years — in the middle.
Beat your potential top division rival for a fourth straight year in your season opener — that’s a good start. That’s a reason for the fan base to think, “Maybe this year will be different. Maybe it will be a little more.”
Instead, thoughts are turning to, “Gee, I hope they stay in the running for the Sun Bowl again.”
So, if you were on the Pitt bandwagon before this season started, don’t jump off. Because, honestly, this is what you should be expecting.
The bigger concern for folks in Oakland is figuring out how to get anyone new to jump onboard.