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Pitt opens football season with matchup against Albany

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Football season is officially here and Pitt will open this Saturday with a game against Albany.

On the surface, this looks like it should be an easy contest for the Panthers. Albany was only 4-7 last year and the Great Danes are only an FCS program. But if you’ve been following openers in the Pat Narduzzi era, you know that we could be in for a nail-biter.

Narduzzi’s claim to fame in season openers has been his teams’ lackluster performances. In his Pitt debut in 2015, Pitt needed to win a shootout over FCS team Youngstown State, 45-37. The Panthers did win somewhat comfortably against Villanova in 2016 but had only a modest 14-0 halftime lead against another FCS foe. Last year was the closest of all as Pitt needed overtime to defeat Youngstown State, 28-21.

In the last two years particularly, Pitt has been reluctant to show too much on offense. It was less of a factor against Villanova but nearly cost the team last season. I’m interested to see what Narduzzi’s philosophy will be this year. Part of me thinks his cockiness will keep him from opening things up too much, to be honest. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pitt maybe take a few early shots and try to get out to a quick lead. If nothing else, Narduzzi should, and almost certainly will, be sending the message that the team has to come out ready to play. The Panthers face Penn State next week but if they manage to drop the opener, holding back the playbook will look incredibly foolish.

No, I don’t think Pitt will lose. But I didn’t expect the team to go to overtime last year at home against Youngstown State, either. With Pitt, you just never say never, and while many fans are cautiously optimistic about this year, from a national standpoint, many think this is a team that is rebuilding.

The quarterback position for both sides is what most people want to see. Pitt will go with new starter Kenny Pickett, who played sparingly last year but took command of the job towards the end of the season and led Pitt to an upset of then No. 2 Miami. There’s been a lot of talk that he has been incredible in camp this year and all eyes are going to be on him Saturday.

On the other side, Pitt faces an intriguing quarterback in Vincent Testaverde. Testaverde is the son of longtime NFL quarterback Vinny Testaverde and will be playing his first game since 2014 (!). He’s bounced around a lot, playing in 2014 with Texas Tech before transferring to his father’s alma mater at Miami where he didn’t play. He transferred to Albany this year and won a three-way competition there for the job.

He’s not played in game action in a long time but he’s a senior quarterback that was good enough to land at Texas Tech and Miami, even if he didn’t play. All Pitt needs is for him to catch lightning in a bottle and make things interesting.

I’m also interested in seeing the defense. That unit lost some key players in the secondary in starters Jordan Whitehead and Avonte Maddox. But a lot of younger players also returned and I want to see how much havoc they can wreak against a lesser opponent. The front seven should be pretty strong and I really like the linebacker corps. However, if the defense struggles this weekend, it will be hard to feel good about what they can do against a much more talented Penn State team the following week.

A final note is that Albany is also coached by Greg Gattuso. That name might sound familiar to local fans as he was previously a position coach at Pitt and also was the head coach at Duquesne. He’s had mixed results there with two seasons over .500 out of four years at the helm.

Pitt should win this one but how they look while doing so is going to lead the discussions heading into next week’s rivalry contest against Penn State. Based on how Pitt has fared in past openers under Narduzzi, I’m not sure that, short of losing or a major injury, anything they do Saturday should really cause mass panic. But there’s little doubt that, following a 5-7 season, there’s a bit more pressure on Narduzzi to come out firing this year and right the ship.

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