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Five big questions for Pitt football in 2019

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NCAA Football: ACC Media Days Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Here at SB Nation, the college blogs are running around answering questions as the football season is nearing. Specifically, we’ve got five big questions here so let’s take a look.

Who is Pitt’s most important player on offense this season?

To me, it all starts and ends at quarterback. Some might view that as a cop out as that’s a popular theme for teams every year. But I think it’s really true for Pitt.

The Panthers found a way to win games last year despite some modest play at quarterback from Kenny Pickett. Heck, they even won a Division. But the Panthers did that largely on the backs of a strong offensive line and a pair of senior running backs that each had 1,000-yard seasons. Teams knew Pitt was bound and determined to run and couldn’t do a thing about it, even as the Panthers struggled to put together much of a passing game. This year, the offensive line is retooled and the backs are gone. Send help.

For Pitt to repeat its Division title, they’ll either need to have a defense that’s lights out or get more from Pickett, who didn’t even crack 2,000 yards of passing. The defense can be good but probably not lights out good — especially with the loss of Rashad Weaver, as was recently announced.

Pickett has to find a way to keep defenses more honest this season. Maybe some of that is with his legs but Pitt has to pass the ball more, plain and simple.

Who is Pitt’s most important player on defense this season?

This is a tough call for me as you could go any number of directions with the team losing starters all over the defense.

I’m going to go with a unit here and call out the entire defensive line. Pitt needs to get more pressure up front and that’s conceivably going to be tougher without the aforementioned Weaver. Many would point to Weaver’s replacement, whoever that ultimately is. But really, it goes deeper than just that.

Pitt needs more production out of the unit as a whole. Case in point, Weaver led the team with 6.5 sacks last year and that didn’t even crack the Top 70 in the nation. For as much as we’ve touted him, he was nowhere near among the best pass rushers in the nation. That’s no knock on him as a player. But the reality is that Pitt’s pass rush from the front four was lackluster. Additionally, the Panthers didn’t even have a second player (at any defensive position) with even five sacks.

Weaver’s loss is clearly a big one and obviously, getting pressure doesn’t always equate to piling up large sack statistics. But the point here is that Pitt needs more production from the entire line and it can’t be adequately funneled down to a single player.

What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?

One would think the passing game. That’s reinforced by the fact that Pitt is breaking in a new offensive coordinator in Mark Whipple with a history of working particularly with quarterbacks and that the team has a stated desire to throw the ball more.

Pickett has a year under his belt and an athletic, though largely unproven, receiving group. Maurice Ffrench is there along with Taysir Mack and a host of youngsters. My guess is that Pitt will force the action more, even if that doesn’t result in much initial success. I’d suspect they’ll be in it for the long haul here and will try to stick with the passing game a bit more unless a running back so dominates the competition that it doesn’t make sense (like last year).

None of Pitt’s guys have had a mammoth season statistically as a receiver (Mack led last year’s group with 557 yards) but both Ffrench and Mack have proven they can make plays. The hope is that with a year of chemistry with Pickett as the quarterback, that leads to more frequent connections through the air.

Obviously, the running game is a significant question with the loss of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. But Pitt has recruited the position well and if they can’t find a good back out of the bunch, I’d be pretty surprised. Ultimately, I expect someone will step forward there, though I will readily admit that ‘someone’ could wind up being another by-committee approach — something head coach Pat Narduzzi doesn’t mind in the slightest.

What is the most important game on this schedule, and why?

Could it be Virginia? I could see that as a somewhat trendy pick but I’m not sure it’s necessarily accurate.

Pitt will open with Virginia this year as opposed to a cupcake and the game could have ramifications for the Division title, if we’re to believe that they are as good as some are projecting. But I’m not sold just yet on Virginia as a contender and even if they are, it’s hard to paint the opening game of the season as the most important one.

The Penn State game seems less important than in recent years since the teams have been playing for the past three seasons and it’s not a conference game. They are probably the most anticipated opponent but most important? Not really.

If Pitt is in the hunt for another Division title, the home game against Miami or the road contest against Virginia Tech will likely figure into the discussion. With the Hokies game as the next to last one of the season, I’d probably have to go with that. But with so many questions about Pitt and the rest of the Division in general, this seems a lot like throwing something at the wall to see what sticks.

What is your prediction for W/L record and postseason destination?

7-5 feels about right, give or take a game. Seems like we’re in this boat every year and it’d be nice to break through 9-10 wins but I don’t see it. Pitt has real questions on both side of the ball, which kind of prevent you from thinking too big here. The schedule is manageable but still two very tough non-conference opponents in Penn State and Central Florida.

The postseason destination will depend on if Pitt can squeeze out another Division title and be an attractive enough candidate for a better bowl. I’m not sure this team has the looks of a Division winner again but here’s the thing — I’m not sure anyone else does, either.

This year has the look of being wide open.

What about you? What are your answers?

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