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Predicting Pitt football’s 2017 campaign

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Pitt's Tre Tipton (5) and George Aston (35) tackle Nittany Lions running back Miles Sanders during the Panthers' 42-39 win last season. (Photo by John Hamilton | Managing Editor)

Pitt's Tre Tipton (5) and George Aston (35) tackle Nittany Lions running back Miles Sanders during the Panthers' 42-39 win last season. (Photo by John Hamilton | Managing Editor)

Pitt's Tre Tipton (5) and George Aston (35) tackle Nittany Lions running back Miles Sanders during the Panthers' 42-39 win last season. (Photo by John Hamilton | Managing Editor)

By Dominic Campbell / Staff Writer

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Coming off a season in which it beat both the national champion and the Big Ten champion, this year’s Pitt football team will have a hard time providing bigger fireworks than it did a year ago.

But head coach Pat Narduzzi expects his team to pull it off, setting the bar just as high as previous seasons despite losing more than 20 players.

Former quarterback Nathan Peterman was among those who left. He’ll be replaced by another graduate transfer in redshirt senior Max Browne. Browne comes to Pitt from the USC Trojans, where he began last season as the starter before being replaced by redshirt freshman Sam Darnold after three games.

On the defensive side, the Panthers will be very inexperienced early on, as four players were suspended or dismissed in late July. Senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis and junior safety Jordan Whitehead each received three-game bans, while redshirt junior offensive lineman Alex Bookser will miss one game.

Here’s a rundown of the Panthers schedule with a corresponding prediction for each game:

Week 1: Youngstown State

The Panthers start out their season against the Penguins of Youngstown State this Saturday. Even though the Penguins are a Football Championship Subdivision team, they’re a proven contender, having made it to the FCS National Championship last season under former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.

The Panthers have also lost to the Penguins recently, and only won by eight points in head coach Pat Narduzzi’s first game in 2015. The Panthers should still be able to win, even with the suspensions, as the Penguins have lost 17 seniors from last year’s team.

Prediction: Pitt 40, Youngstown State 17

Week 2: Penn State

Pitt’s second game of the season will likely be their toughest, with the team traveling east to take on in-state rival Penn State. The Nittany Lions — ranked sixth in the preseason AP Poll — are one of the best teams in the country and have many key players returning from last year’s Big Ten Championship team.

Sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley, as well as first team All-Americans Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki, all return and are expected to make the Nittany Lions one of the most explosive offenses in the NCAA.

Considering Pitt’s poor pass defense, it’s hard to imagine the Panthers coming out with the win this time. McSorley should have a huge day, picking apart the Panthers’ secondary and leading his team to victory.

Prediction: Penn State 42, Pitt 28

Week 3: Oklahoma State

Things won’t get any easier for the Panthers in week three, as they take on the tenth-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys at Heinz Field. Despite having a great offense, the Cowboys share the Panthers’ secondary deficiencies, finishing 109 of 128 in passing yards allowed in 2016.

That being said, this could be another high-scoring shootout similar to the one the teams had a year ago. In that matchup, the Cowboys were able to escape with a close 45-38 win, scoring the deciding touchdown with 1:28 to go.

This time, though, Pitt will come out on top in another close, entertaining shootout.

Prediction: Pitt 55, Oklahoma State 45

Week 4: Georgia Tech

The Panthers kick off ACC play Sept. 23 on the road against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and their tricky triple-option offense.

The Yellow Jackets run an offense in which the quarterback has three options on almost every play — hand the ball off, pitch it or keep it himself.

Narduzzi and the Panthers have had success slowing down this offense in recent years — winning the past two matchups on late field goals — and this year’s matchup should be close as well.

If the Panthers can run the ball with their deep stable of backs, they’ll pull out a late win yet again.

Prediction: Pitt 33, Georgia Tech 27

Week 5: Rice

The Panthers will end their nonconference schedule with a game against the Rice Owls, an easier game than the previous three. Rice had a disappointing year last fall, going 3-9, including a 2-6 conference mark.

The Panthers should use this contest to rest players and find ways to work on weaknesses in their game. Otherwise, this should be an easy one for the team, unlike last year’s 30-27 win over Marshall.

Prediction: Pitt 45, Rice 14

Week 6: Syracuse

The Panthers return to conference play in week six, traveling north to take on former Big East rival Syracuse. When these teams met last December, they combined for 137 points — the most ever in a major college football game, with the Panthers winning 76-61.

Junior quarterback Eric Dungey will be back for the Orange, and the Panthers will be looking for him to throw the ball deep. In 2016, Dungey threw for 2679 yards and 15 touchdowns in only nine games.

He’ll be tough to slow down, but considering the Orange’s defense was just as bad as Pitt’s last season, the game has the potential to be high-scoring yet again. This should be another shootout for the Panthers, but one they should win.

Prediction: Pitt 62, Syracuse 45

Week 7: North Carolina State

Since the Panthers joined the ACC in 2013, there are only a couple of teams in the Atlantic division they haven’t played. One of them is the North Carolina State Wolfpack.

Coming off a 7-6 year, N.C. State returns one of the best-run defenses in the conference, led by preseason All-American defensive end Bradley Chubb Sr. The unit held opponents to an average of 109 rushing yards per game, good for eighth best in the country.

The Wolfpack are less potent on offense, though, and Pitt will have to take advantage of that to pull out the win.

Prediction: Pitt 30, NC St. 20

Week 8: Duke

Pitt returns to Coastal division competition on Oct. 21, hitting the road to take on the Duke Blue Devils in Durham, North Carolina.

The Panthers will come up against redshirt sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones, who threw for 2,836 yards and 16 touchdowns after being forced into the starting role as a freshman. However, the Blue Devils are still rebuilding after a disappointing 4-8 season in which they lost by 10 or more six times.

The team’s offensive line was one of its main shortcomings, giving up 31 sacks on the year, something which should bode well for the Panthers’ defense.

Prediction: Pitt 42, Duke 21

Week 9: Virginia

The Panthers will then return to Heinz Field for a two-game homestand, starting with the Virginia Cavaliers on Oct. 28.

The Cavaliers were terrible last season, finishing 2-10 overall and 1-7 in the ACC, and have been by far the worst team in the conference since Pitt joined. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall is hoping to turn things around in his second season, but with a very inexperienced group, that seems unlikely.

Even if they improve, it shouldn’t be by too much as they’ll likely be one of the easiest opponents on the Panthers’ schedule.

If Pitt can find ways to get around All-American defenders Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding like they did in last year’s 45-31 victory, the outcome should be the same.
Prediction: Pitt 31, Virginia 21

Week 10: North Carolina

Kicking off an extremely difficult three-game stretch, the North Carolina Tar Heels come to Pittsburgh as the only team yet to lose to the Panthers in their four years in the conference.

Last year, in Chapel Hill, Pitt was either tied or in the lead the entire game, until Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw a go-ahead touchdown pass with two seconds remaining to give his team the 37-36 win.

This time around, though, North Carolina will be without both Trubisky and standout wide receiver Ryan Switzer, giving the Panthers a better shot to get their first win in the recent series.

Prediction: Pitt 38, UNC 24

Week 11: Virginia Tech

Coming into the year as the reigning ACC Coastal division champions, the Virginia Tech Hokies look to continue the momentum they built under first-year head coach Justin Fuente and contend for the ACC title.

They’ll have to deal with some tough losses, though, as quarterback Jerod Evans declared early for the NFL Draft and tight end Bucky Hodges graduated.

But even though their offense is thin, the Hokies sport a fantastic defense led by junior linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and senior cornerback Brandon Facyson. The unit will do enough to slow down the Pitt offense, giving the Hokies their second consecutive win in the series.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 32, Pitt 27

Week 12: Miami

The odds-on favorite to win the ACC Coastal, the Miami Hurricanes could very well be playing to get into the ACC Championship Game when they close the regular season at Heinz Field Nov. 24.

Despite losing quarterback Brad Kaaya, the Hurricanes’ offense is expected to rank toward the top of the conference this fall. The unit returns both its leading rusher and receiver in junior Mark Walton and sophomore Ahmmon Richards, respectively, who should be able to overpower the Panthers and lead their team to a win.

Prediction: Miami 42, Pitt 28

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Predicting Pitt football’s 2017 campaign