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Kenny Pickett generating Heisman buzz after hot start

The Pitt quarterback helms the nation's top offense and is among the FBS leaders in passing yards, touchdowns and efficiency

NCAA Football: New Hampshire at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett has been one of the top signal-callers in the nation in 2021, and he finds himself on pace for the best season of his career. And as a result, his name has been brought up in the Heisman conversation — and not just by local media, but by analysts at ESPN and FS1, including former USC quarterback and 2004 Heisman winner Matt Leinart.

“Has anyone watched Kenny Pickett and the [Pitt] Panthers?” Leinart, who is now a college football analyst at FS1, wrote in a Twitter post. “He’s completing over 70 percent of his throws with 19 touchdowns. He needs some Heisman love. Watch out for them in the ACC.”

Andrea Adelson of ESPN, a Heisman voter, also called Pickett as “a new Heisman contender” and asked him if he deserves to be in the conversation, to which he replied, “You guys can figure that one out. I’m just going to keep playing. We’ve got seven games to go. I want a championship. That’s why I came back.”

So far this season, Pickett has thrown for 1,731 yards and 19 touchdowns with just one pick. Many of those yards and touchdowns came against New Hampshire, UMass and Western Michigan, but Pickett also faced Georgia Tech and Tennessee on the road and performed as well as he did against lower-tier teams.

In addition, Pickett appears to have gotten into a better rhythm with his receivers, as he has completed a career-high 72 percent of his passes this season and efficiently moved the team downfield drive after drive. That’s a major departure from last season, when Pitt saw countless opportunities stifled by drops and predictable play calls forced by limited receiving options. But now, with Lucas Krull and Gavin Bartholomew both contributing at tight end along with Jordan Addison and Taysir Mack at the receiver spots, Pickett has options, and that has made him hard to stop.

The New Jersey native is also looking at a wide-open ACC for the first time in his career, as Clemson has struggled this year and fell out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2014. That leaves Wake Forest and NC State as the only ranked ACC programs, and with those three teams in the Atlantic Division, Pitt has a pathway to both a Coastal Division title and an ACC title for the first time since Narduzzi became Pitt’s head coach in 2015.

Pickett would likely need Pitt to put together a conference-winning season to remain in the Heisman conversation come December, as each of the past four winners have won conference titles and each of the last two have won national titles. And while an ACC title may seem like a long shot to a Pitt fanbase accustomed to disappointment, ESPN considers the program the favorite to win the ACC based on its FPI odds, which now give Pitt a 44.3 percent chance at a conference title. ESPN also gives Pitt an ACC-best 9.2 percent chance to make the playoff.

Given all that, there is plenty of reason for optimism with regard to both Pickett and Pitt as a whole. But as Pickett cautioned, there are seven games to go, and they include matchups with Clemson, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. The first three have disappointed this season and will be hungrier for wins than usual, and the fourth has given Pitt trouble, with Narduzzi going 3-3 against the Hokies.

With that said, the Oct. 16 tilt between Pitt, which boasts the No. 1 offense in the nation, and Virginia Tech, which has the nation's No. 11 defense, will go a long way toward determining what kind of season this will be for Pickett as well as the Pitt program as a whole. And, predictably, so will high-profile matchups with Clemson, Miami, North Carolina, especially with each of those teams falling short of expectations this year.