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A tale of two seasons — Pitt rebounded from a slow start to become relevant in the ACC

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After a 2-3 start, Pat Narduzzi’s bold preseason claim of winning the Coastal Division to play in the ACC Championship wasn’t looking so hot.

It wasn’t only the record, of course. Rather, it was how they looked. After an easy win against Albany, the Panthers were beaten like a drum by Penn State, 51-6, in a game that Pitt has very clearly defined as an important one. The Panthers did rebound to defeat Georgia Tech but then were again beaten in an ugly fashion by Central Florida, losing 45-14. After a loss to North Carolina, the worst team in the Division, fans were downright upset.

And they had the right to be.

To that point, Pitt had not lived up to expectations and people even bandied about the idea of winning fewer games than last year when the Panthers won only five, failing to reach a bowl game for the first time in a decade. This had the look of not only being a rebuilding season but one where the team might even regress.

Things looked bleak and the bandwagon was all but empty at that point. But the Panthers never got the memo the season was over.

Despite the complaining among fans, the generally unreasonable ideas that Pat Narduzzi should be fired this year, and the possibility that this could be a very bad football team, the Panthers refused to quit.

The Panthers rebounded to defeat an upstart Syracuse team that is ranked No. 13 in the nation. And after nearly shocking undefeated Notre Dame on the road in a close loss, the Panthers have been untouchable knocking off favored Duke and Virginia teams, as well as Virginia Tech on Saturday. All told, since that dismal performance against Central Florida, Pitt is 4-1 and darn close to 5-0.

Truth be told, the teams Pitt have beaten are not great ones. I’ve said many times that the likes of Duke, Virginia, and Syracuse were overrated and merely had inflated records. But the Panthers were favored in only one of the last five contests (Virginia Tech) and, even though those teams may not be great, they were still expected to defeat the Panthers. And most recently, they absolutely destroyed the Hokies, who entering Saturday, could have won the Division themselves.

All of this really speaks to the shortsightedness of early season panicking. Keep in mind, I’m just as guilty as others when it comes to that and, while I am generally more forgiving when it comes to making coaching changes, etc., there is no way I anticipated a turnaround like this.

But the somewhat uncomfortable reality is that this team did not fold even when the fanbase did.

So what’s the reason for the turnaround? The competition, I’m convinced, is part of it. More specifically, the change in competition from what Pitt faced early on could be a gamechanger. While I don’t necessarily like that Pitt played what is easily the most difficult non-conference slate in the country, I also have little doubt that the Panthers were better prepared for conference play by facing such strong teams. No offense to the ACC teams that Pitt has defeated this year, but when you stack them up against the likes of Notre Dame, UCF, and Penn State, they look much more beatable.

Is that a reason for Pitt to take on a Herculean non-conference schedule every year. Not at all. The Panthers, as I’ve been saying for years now, need to schedule down to make real progress as a program. You get into the Top 25 with a fluff schedule (cough, Virginia, cough), then you become a continued presence in the rankings so that recruits take notice, then you recruit better, and then you schedule tougher.

Still, playing such good teams earlier this season had to prepare these guys for this, so there was a very tangible benefit.

This season, regardless of how it ends, should also buy head coach Pat Narduzzi more time. I’ve never been in favor of firing Narduzzi for numerous reasons and he’s proven that he’s capable of rallying a good, but flawed team, and contending for a conference title. That, regardless of the competition, is impressive when you consider the depths to which this team came from. There has been very tangible improvement and if you’re a program like Pitt that isn’t likely to attract a top coach, even thinking about replacing him at this point would be dumb.

Pitt’s season has not yet been fully written. The year is not over and is there a chance the Panthers don’t cash in the Division? With two road games and none of them necessarily easy, oh yeah. The biggest fallacy here is thinking that things are wrapped up. But now at 6-4 and clearly in the driver’s seat to reach the ACC Championship game, they’ve made the season exciting again and clearly are playing for something.

And after five games, few (including me) expected that would happen.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill’s Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.