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Pitt faces improved Virginia team in Friday night matchup

NCAA Football: Duke at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Slightly delayed preview, folks. In short, it’s been one heck of a past week and just buried with all sorts of stuff. And not only is the preview late, but the Panthers have a really short turnaround this week with a game on Friday, so it’s even more behind.

At 4-4, Pitt is rebounding a bit from a pretty bad start to the season. The Panthers got off to a 2-3 start but have won two of their past three and looked surprisingly good even in defeat with a close loss to Notre Dame. Pitt is a surging team, though, I expect the degree to which they are surging is probably up for debate.

Defeating average Duke and Syracuse teams won’t turn too many heads, even though both are having nice seasons. But what’s important is that Pitt is right in the thick of things in the ACC’s Coastal Division. This weekend, they’ll play Virginia in what quite likely could be an elimination game of sorts.

Both teams are 3-1 and a second loss would not only drop the loser behind the winner, but also effectively 1 12 games in a head-to-head tiebreaker, should it come to that. There’s a lot more football to be played so the loser isn’t 100% guaranteed to be out of things from what I can tell. But the loser will, at a minimum, need significant help to get back in the mix. Case in point, if Pitt loses this game, they could need Virginia to lose both of their remaining ACC games to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Pitt may not be mathematically out of it even then, I suppose, since there are some interesting rules for a three-way tie. But in terms of keeping it simple, Pitt really just needs to win this game.

Virginia, like earlier Syracuse and Duke teams Pitt faced, is a bit of a surprise this season. They are 6-2 with losses to Indiana and NC State. And like I said with regards to Syracuse and Duke, their record is probably inflated a bit due to a pretty weak schedule so far. The Cavaliers are ranked in the Top 25 this week but there are still a good many questions about them.

The Cavaliers’ non-conference schedule is, to be blunt, not strong. They’ve already played Richmond and Ohio, and will face Liberty later this season. The highlight? That aforementioned loss to 4-5 Indiana.

Now, don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not knocking this at all. In fact, I’ve openly campaigned that Pitt’s out of conference schedule should be similar until they start winning more games. But it is worth pointing out just because the level of competition Virginia has played hasn’t been in the same galaxy as that of Pitt. And as I suggested in the cases of Duke/Syracuse, I’m not convinced that the Cavaliers are really as good as their record. Perhaps they are, but I don’t know how you can judge that based on their schedule.

Somewhat interestingly, Virginia looks a little less ‘for real’ than they did before. Earlier, they beat Louisville but the Cardinals are 2-6, winless in the ACC, and possibly the worst team in the conference. They they defeated a ranked Miami team. The Hurricanes, though, were just thrashed by Boston College and only 5-3 and 2-2 in the conference. You add it up and it’s possible that the best team they’ve beaten is Duke ... a team Pitt just defeated.

This isn’t sugarcoating things, though. There are lots of reasons this isn’t a gimme win for the Panthers. First, Pitt is not all that great themselves. The offense made strides this weekend but the defense was a train wreck. This, by most indications, still looks like a very mediocre team.

Second, there’s the home/road dynamic. Virginia is a perfect 5-0 at home and will be hosting the Panthers. Conversely, Pitt hasn’t won a road game yet and is 0-3 there. I’m not sure that should put the fear of God into Pitt fans, exactly, since two of the Panthers’ road contests have been against Top 10 Notre Dame and UCF teams. Still, the stat is out there.

Finally, keep in mind that Virginia is playing for a Coastal Division title themselves. This isn’t some meaningless game to the Cavaliers and you can bet they’re just as motivated as Pitt to reach an ACC title game. By all indications, Pitt should get Virginia’s best shot on Friday.

Looking specifically to Virginia, offensively, all talk is about quarterback Bryce Perkins. Perkins is a dual-threat guy (oh, good) with 1,623 passing yards and 15 touchdowns to eight interceptions on the season. He’s the second-leading rusher on the team with 575 yards there as well as another six scores. I can see Perkins giving Pitt a lot of trouble as the Panthers had a difficult time trying to contain the mobile McKenzie Milton in the blowout loss at UCF and Perkins runs a lot more than he does. The outcome for this game from a Pitt perspective could very well come down to how well they can contain him.

It’s really on defense where Virginia has looked consistently good. The Cavaliers’ scoring defense is 18th in the nation and that ranks only behind No. 1 Clemson in terms of ACC teams. Yes, this is a down year for the conference but a top 20 defense is still impressive. So far, Virginia has allowed only 18.8 points per game.

If you’re trying to determine what happens on Friday night, good luck. I was fairly confident Pitt could beat Syracuse and Duke this year but I’ve got no idea what happens here. Part of the reason I liked the Panthers in those games was because both were at home. On the road in a Friday night game, I’m less confident about Pitt here.

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