We knew Pitt's 2016 football schedule was going to be a difficult one. That didn't necessarily make the jolt any weaker when it officially dropped yesterday:
9/10 Penn State
9/17 at Oklahoma State
9/24 at North Carolina
10/8 Georgia Tech
10/15 at Virginia
10/27 Virginia Tech (Thurs, ESPN)
11/5 at Miami
11/12 at Clemson
So let's take a closer look:
The non-conference is a bear, there's no doubt about it. There may not be a top five team here like Notre Dame or anything like that, but the cupcakes are limited to Villanova, and, well that's it. Marshall looks like a game you should win, but the Thundering Herd are anything but a pushover. They've averaged 11 wins a year over the past three years and while the competition has been light, they've picked up wins over Purdue, Maryland, and UConn during that stretch. They nearly defeated Virginia Tech, too, losing 31-29 on the road in a 2013 overtime game. If you're counting that one as a sure win, I'd encourage you to think again.
Past those two are the heavyweights in Penn State and Oklahoma State. While the Nittany Lions haven't been that great, if you don't think James Franklin will go all out to win that game, you've got another thing coming. Whether Penn State is ranked at that point or not isn't important. Even at home that will be a very, very difficult game to win and despite what their fans may say, you can bet that they are as amped for that game as Pitt fans are. And no one needs to be told about facing Oklahoma State on the road. The Cowboys have won ten games a year in two of the past three seasons and that's just going to be a hard game for the Panthers as well. Winning that game at home looks like it would be a significant upset. To try to steal it on the road looks nearly impossible. Oklahoma State is in most, if not all, of the major early Top 25 projections.
Overall, winning three non-conference games would have to be considered a rousing success. Two would be a disappointment but is certainly possible (some would say probable). One would be terrible, but is it completely out of the realm of possibility? Probably not.
ACC Road Games
While it will take a while to figure out the top teams in the conference, it's possible that the Panthers face their three most difficult opponents on the road in Clemson, North Carolina, and Miami to go along with Virginia. I don't think there's any argument about the Tigers being the most difficult and Pitt will have to play well to defeat either the Tar Heels or Hurricanes. Pitt grabbing even two wins here might have to be considered a success.
ACC Home Games
The conference home games aren't gimmes but they look a little more winnable. At Heinz Field, the Panthers get Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Duke, and Syracuse. The Hokies, potentially the toughest team here, will be in Pittsburgh on a Thursday night where Pitt will have the chance to get a rowdy crowd. No, that didn't help this past year against North Carolina in a mid-week game, but the Tar Heels were also a top ten team. Again, we don't know what challenges next year's teams will present but winning three out of four seems possible with this lineup.
Outside of the degree of difficulty, one thing that stands out is the finale. For the past three years, Pitt has faced Miami in their final regular season game on either Black Friday or the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. That changes up a bit this year as Pitt takes on Syracuse in that game. That slot, of course, was previously reserved for West Virginia in the old Big East, so that date will still be one that features somewhat of a rivalry (don't laugh).
Overall, this is a very tough slate in my estimation. Sure, there are winnable games to be had, but there are several that look very difficult and many tossups here.
Unlike this past year, the schedule isn't completely backloaded. In 2015, the schedule was out of balance with the Panthers facing only one good team (Iowa) in the first six games while playing North Carolina, Notre Dame, Duke, Louisville, and Syracuse to finish the season. This year, the tougher games are spread out a little more and Pitt will get tested much more early on.
Pitt needs to be ready out of the gate this season because things get very challenging pretty early. A 1-3 start would be damaging to the program and would make some of the Heinz Field crowds after that very interesting. But the other side of that is a 3-1 start would be extremely encouraging since it would probably mean pulling off at least one upset. Pitt will have a great opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the season early on. The season won't be over if the Panthers start 1-3 but a lot of fans would probably check out by then if that was the case.
Coming up with any sort of meaningful prediction when the full rosters for next year aren't even known yet is nearly impossible. But if I'm looking at what Pitt brings back, where some of the teams are projected, etc., I'm somewhere in the neighborhood of seven wins.
I'm throwing Clemson, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, and Miami out there as probable losses. I'll put Villanova, Marshall, Virginia, and Syracuse in the win categories. That means the Panthers would have to win three of the remaining four (Penn State, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Duke), but those are all at home. That sounds difficult, but at the end of the day, Pitt has seven home games. As good as they were on the road this season, grabbing two away games isn't going to be unheard of. Seven wins may not get there the way I'm calling it, but I think it's still quite possible.
Part of the problem for Pitt is that they have several questions. Without Tyler Boyd, will quarterback be as effective? What do the Panthers get out of a changing defensive line? How does new offensive coordinator Matt Canada adjust? Pitt would probably be better equipped to handle this schedule when head coach Pat Narduzzi has his own players in the system for a few seasons.
So for now, put me down for seven wins, plus or minus one. What say you?