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Pitt football faces a big opening test in Virginia

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Pittsburgh Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Game week is officially here for the Pitt football team. This year, of course, opens with a bit of a wrinkle.

Like most teams, the Panthers typically open with a lesser opponent. That hasn’t always been the case nor has it even always gone well when it has been. But for the most part, Pitt has usually begun its seasons with an easier game.

That isn’t the case in this season’s opener as Pitt will face a tough in conference opponent in Virginia.

Now, Virginia isn’t Clemson and after seeing the Hurricanes nearly take down top ten Florida this weekend, I’m not even sure they’re Miami. But they aren’t a bottom feeder and certainly are well above the level of an FCS team that Pitt often likes to face to start the year. In Virginia, Pitt will face a pretty good program that is more than capable of defeating them.

I’ll look closer at the odds a little later this week but Pitt opened as a slight favorite and is now a slight underdog. Who knows if it will end up this way but this has the early look of being anybody’s game.

So what can we expect from Virginia? Last year’s team was 8-5 and was a contender to win the Coastal Division. At one point, they were 6-2 but lost to the Panthers at home and never fully recovered, dropping three of their last four regular season games. That game was sort of the turning point in Pitt’s season if you think about it. Thanks to a rough schedule that included Penn State, Notre Dame, and UCF, the Panthers were only 4-4 heading into that game. But they would go on to win three in a row on their way to securing the Division.

Back to Virginia, though. They were a solid team last year and are expected to be even better this year. They did not crack a major preseason Top 25 but secured a good number of votes, effectively ranking 32nd in the AP poll and 37th in the Coaches Poll.

There’s legitimate reason for hype around the Cavaliers this year. They return a capable senior quarterback in Bryce Perkins. They return seven starters on defense, including All-World cornerback Bryce Hall, one of the best defenders in the league and possibly the entire country. And they have legitimately improved every season since head coach Bronco Mendenhall took over, going from 2-10, to 6-7, to 8-5 last year.

Pitt won last year’s game behind a huge effort from Darrin Hall, who had 229 yards and three scores. The Panthers couldn’t get anything going through the air and Hall’s game, along with the team’s defense, was what, frankly, allowed Pitt to win.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Panthers’ passing game taking steps forward but against a solid defense, they’ll need to put together another strong ground attack. And without Hall and fellow senior last year, Qadree Ollison, exactly who takes over is going to be up for debate. Head coach Pat Narduzzi even contended recently that he expects the depth chart at running back will evolve as the year goes on. A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley sat atop the preseason depth chart released last month and, as I’ll discuss later, look like the two guys that will handle this game.

Questions in the passing game. Uncertainty in the run game. Loss of the team’s top pass rusher due to injury. Why exactly should Pitt be picked to win here?

I’m not sure they necessarily should, if we’re being honest here. It’s quite easy to look at this game and predict a Pitt loss and that they are a slight underdog is not surprising. But I do believe the Panthers have a decent chance to win for a few reasons.

First, they got zero production from Pickett in last year’s game and even a modest game by him would be an improvement. Pickett was 7-14 for 61 yards in that game and Pitt still managed to win the game by ten points. I would be surprised if he doesn’t muster more than that this year. Hall can’t cover everyone and while he can take away one of Pitt’s threats, they should still manage a better passing game this time around. It’s also worth noting that the Cavaliers recently lost one of their project starters at cornerback to an injury.

And while there are questions about the running game, I would also be surprised if they can’t get anything going among the backs they have. I doubt we see a Hall-like performance by one guy in this game but a by-committee approach that is effective is quite possible. Davis and Sibley have not done much while they’ve been here, thanks to Hall and Ollison leading the way. But both were highly touted recruits coming in. The team also has redshirt freshman Mychale Salahuddin and true freshman Vincent Davis, which will be in the mix this year. But Narduzzi also said he didn’t anticipate Davis playing in the opener and that Salahuddin was ‘rusty’ in a recent scrimmage, so it sounds like Davis and Sibley are the guys for this game, at least.

Pitt’s defense should also be pretty good. There’s a lot of talk about Virginia but I think the Panthers’ defense could turn some heads as well. They return the core of their secondary and while they lost quite a bit of their front seven, they didn’t pressure opposing offenses enough, anyway. I don’t want to minimalize the losses, obviously, and I thought the linebackers played pretty well. But Pitt has been building some quality depth on defense and the effect on turnover in the front seven is hopefully not as large as some might expect.

Virginia similarly has some questions of its own on offense. The team has lost last year’s starting running back, Jordan Ellis, and top receiver, Olamide Zaccheaus. Both topped 1,000 yards last year and were the biggest weapons available to Perkins by a considerable margin.

Finally, Pitt gets the game at home and to play a night game as the home opener with what should be a large, vocal crowd, the advantage there is understood. Pitt proved in last year’s contest that home field advantage doesn’t mean everything. But it should help and in a close game, every advantage is important.

The real question for me here is the Pitt offensive line. That line did plenty for Hall in last year’s game and is probably the most important group to the Panthers’ season from an offensive standpoint. Pitt replaces four starters there and a poor performance could make for a long game.

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