It’s officially happening.
Pitt football prepares to play a season like no other in a year like no other. The Panthers’ first step on this journey will be a game against Austin Peay.
Let me be honest — I did not think we’d get to this point. When the Big Ten and others were shutting down, I figured that an ACC cancellation was only a matter of time. I could not have been the only one.
But amidst all of the questions of ‘Should they,’ it’s been decided that, ready or not, they will. We’ve got football and, while I don’t know if it’s the right choice or not, selfishly, I’m not afraid to admit that I am glad to have it.
Even when the season was still somewhat in doubt, head coach Pat Narduzzi insisted the Panthers would not only be playing this year, but that they would find a new team to face in their season opener after their game with Miami-Ohio was canceled. Turns out he was right. Pitt will take on Austin Peay this Saturday and, like most openers the team has, this should be a game they win relatively easily. ‘Should’, of course, is the key word in that sentence and Pitt fans only have to look back to last year’s nailbiter against Delaware to know that there are no givens.
Critics will point out that Pitt was playing that game with a backup quarterback. They were. But with COVID very much still a problem, injuries aren’t the only thing that can force players to miss games this season. That some key players somewhere in the college football landscape will unexpectedly miss games this year seems like a certainty. All of a sudden, the seemingly gimme games like this one can easily become less winnable since rosters can be turned upside down on a game day.
But, assuming there are no major personnel issues this weekend, obviously it’s a game Pitt will be expected to win. The Panthers have the look of a team that should be pretty good and threaten to crack the Top 25. Ideally, it’s a game that Pitt will use to evaluate players and see who is ready to help them win ACC games. And if there’s anything we can expect, it’s that Pitt will probably not show too many of its cards in the game unless things are closer than head coach Pat Narduzzi likes.
Austin Peay, if you’ve not been paying attention, is playing a unique, abbreviated schedule that includes only three games. They also have the benefit of having suited up already, losing to Central Arkansas, 24-17, back on August 29. Pitt will be their second opponent and they’ll end their season with a road game at Cincinnati. What that means for Saturday and how they’ll approach it, I can’t say. I’d expect that they’d be playing with nothing to lose. But the Panthers have the better team and as long as they show up, it’s simply hard to see them losing this one.
That isn’t to say the Panthers don’t have question marks heading into this one. And there are any number of things worth watching.
Finding a running game is maybe chief among those on offense. Who steps up to replace the production lost by Maurice Ffrench, who set a school record with receptions last year? How will the offensive line come together? And how will the team deal without fans in the stands? Even the defense, which is expected to shine, has questions at cornerback with the graduation of Dane Jackson and the injury to Damarri Mathis.
Even if the Panthers manage to win, we’ll still be trying to figure these things out. But Saturday, if nothing else, is at least the first step in answering some of these questions.