Been a long, hard struggle, but Pitt football is finally back.
Just as a quick precursor, we'll be doing our usual routine around these parts. During the game weeks, we'll have an early preview, look at the odds, injury updates, staff picks, a look at the depth chart, game schedule/information, and more, depending on the opponent.
And as usual, on game days, we'll be running our open threads. Please drop in and comment during the game with us. After the game, we'll have analysis, a Panther of the Game, Play of the Game, and Tweetcaps.
In other words, we've got you covered.
Pitt starts off the season against Villanova this weekend. I'll have more on this later today, but obviously this is a team the Panthers should beat. Nothing's guaranteed (again, more on that later), but for all intents and purposes, if Pitt doesn't find a way to win on Saturday, it could be a long season.
Pitt returns quite a bit of talent this year, including a lot of the pieces needed for a successful season. Their quarterback remains unchanged and while wide receiver Tyler Boyd is gone to the NFL leaving some questions about who steps up in that unit, the Panthers have a very experienced offensive line with potentially 3-4 NFL Draft picks, and a solid tight end. Also there is an impressive running backs grouping, including the 2015 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year in Qadree Ollison and starter and 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner, who returns after a season-long MCL injury and bout with cancer.
Defensively, there's a lot to like, too. The lone starter on the defensive line without prior starting experience is Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix. Ironically, Hendrix was a top recruit and is expected to become one of the team's better linemen. The linebackers could feature a trio of starters if Bam Bradley grabs one of the outside linebacker spots. In the secondary, the Panthers return three starters with the only spot up for grabs one at cornerback. That job has a senior in Ryan Lewis expected to land the job.
Pitt won't be perfect but has the potential to be very good.
To the Panthers' opponent, Villanova wasn't awful in 2015. The team was 6-5 on the year and while they are in the FCS, they were competitive against FBS team UConn on the road in their opener, losing only 20-15. They're not one of those teams you want to schedule, as SB Nation noted earlier this year.
This year, they are expected to again be solid. They were ranked 23rd in a preseason Top 25 poll and were picked by the media to finish fourth in the CAA this season.
One thing Villanova did exceptionally well last year was play defense. The Wildcats ranked 11th in the nation (FCS) in scoring defense, allowing only 18.4 points per game. And giving up only a little more than 300 total yards per game, Villanova ranked 16th there. Contrast that to their 69th ranked offense and it's easy to see where the Wildcats excelled in 2015.
Offensively, in fact, the Wildcats didn't have a big-time player by the numbers last year. Leading rusher was quarterback Zach Bednarczyk with 515 yards and the leading receiver was Kevin Gulyas (40 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns). That's not to say there's not talent there and Pitt has seen its fair share of non-conference guys go off for big games - i.e. running back Conor Hundley of Akron who had a career game against Pitt two years ago.
At quarterback, they have an interesting situation. Heading into spring camp, there appeared to be a quarterback controversy brewing as Bednarcyzk led the way for the team in 2015 with two others, Adeyemi DaSilva and John Robertson suffering injuries last year. But it now sounds as if he's the guy again. He was serviceable (ten touchdowns, seven interceptions) last year as a freshman, but not spectacular. However, despite an up and down season, he was still the CAA Co-Offensive Rookie of the Year and is capable of throwing the ball as well as running with it.
If there's a guy to watch on offense, it's probably the dual-threat quarterback, who led the team in rushing and had 157 yards on the ground against James Madison.
Pitt will need to keep Bednarczyk in check and also find a way to move the ball on what was a pretty good defense last year. If they do that, a win on Saturday is likely.