Pitt had a so-so regular season that included losses in consequential games to Virginia and Virginia Tech as well as a painful loss to in-state rival Penn State. However, the team also upset UCF, which was the No. 15 team in the nation at the time, and logged satisfying wins over North Carolina and Syracuse.
The end result of all this was a 7-5 record and an invitation to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, both of which have generally been met with disappointment from the Pitt faithful. However, according to Pro Football Focus, which analyzed and ranked all 130 FBS programs following Championship Saturday, there is reason for optimism, as Pitt is ranked 31st overall and fourth out of 14 teams in the ACC.
In the ranking, which is based on week-to-week results and PFF grades, 1,500 ELO points is considered an average total, and the four best teams in the ranking, Clemson, Ohio State, LSU and Alabama, all hover around the 1,900-point mark. Pitt finished the 2019 season between the 1,600- and 1,650-point marks putting it in the same ballpark as programs like Iowa State, Michigan State, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Ben Brown of PFF provided some additional insight into the evaluation process and how the rankings were assigned.
”PFFELO is an iterative system that updates each team’s rating after each game based on two things: how well they played against their opponent and how well they were expected to play against their opponent," Brown said. "The PFFELO rating system measures the former using our unique offensive, defensive and special teams grades, while the latter is determined by the PFFELO ratings leading up to the game and where the game is played.”
In terms of program trajectory, PFF views Pitt as a team on a positive path, as it began the season just below the 1,600-point mark and rose above the 1,650-point mark for three weeks toward the end of the regular season. Even after a weak finish, Pitt still appears to be hovering around the 1,630-point mark, which compares favorably to most ACC teams, with the exceptions of No. 1 Clemson, No. 28 Virginia and No. 30 Virginia Tech.
Pitt also compares well to rivals like West Virginia, which is ranked 68th, and Syracuse, which is ranked 55th. Both of those teams fell below the 1,500-point mark during the season, meaning they were considered subpar by PFF. Pitt’s lowest point was an early-season dip to a just-above-average 1,550 points. However, Pitt falls well short of its most hated rival in the ranking, as Penn State comes in at eighth, with just under 1,800 points.
Another intriguing detail was PFF’s largely dim view of the bottom five teams in the AP Top 25. Aside from USC, which was ranked 22nd by the AP and 21st by PFF, the other four teams were assigned rankings that were significantly lower than their AP spots. In fact, Pitt outranked them all, with No. 25 Oklahoma State at 34th in the PFF ranking, No. 24 Air Force at 33rd, No. 23 Cincinnati at 40th and No. 21 Navy at 49th.
Pat Narduzzi and the Pitt staff would probably prefer a good AP poll ranking to a good PFF ranking, but it bodes well for Pitt that advanced analytics suggest it is consistently improving and compares well with teams on the fringes of the AP Top 25. Given the pieces Pitt has in place, its apparent upward trajectory and its lighter non-conference schedule in 2020, PFF’s evaluation suggests the team could make waves next season — perhaps even breaking into the Top 25 and returning to its winning ways in the ACC.