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Pitt football looks ahead to difficult non-conference schedule

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A Pittsburgh sports record 69,983 fans showed up at Heinz Field the last time Pitt played Penn State at home.
(TPN File Photo)

A Pittsburgh sports record 69,983 fans showed up at Heinz Field the last time Pitt played Penn State at home. (TPN File Photo)

A Pittsburgh sports record 69,983 fans showed up at Heinz Field the last time Pitt played Penn State at home. (TPN File Photo)

By Brandon Glass | Staff Writer

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With the recent finalization of Pitt’s 2018 football schedule, it’s never too early to start planning ticket purchases and tailgates.

The team is set to face a tough non-conference schedule, including two perennial national title contenders and a team that just went undefeated. While ACC opponents stay consistent, the out-of-conference matchups are a mixed bag and next year the Panthers face some difficult, sometimes familiar, foes.

Albany

The Panthers start out the new season on Sept. 1 with a contest against the Great Danes. Albany, led by head coach Greg Gattuso, suffered a down year in 2017, finishing with a record of 4-7. The Great Danes entered the offseason looking to shake things up a bit, though, by promoting Keith Dudzinski to defensive coordinator, and Nick Sanchez to assistant defensive coordinator.

With the new staff, Albany looks to have a revamped defense heading into 2018 after some inconsistent performances last season. The Great Danes faced two shutouts as well as letting up more than 30 points in three games.

The Panthers shouldn’t take the Great Danes lightly on opening weekend. Their 4-7 record was a bit misleading, as two of their losses came in overtime, one of which was in double overtime. If the Panthers come out sloppy or don’t take Albany seriously, they could see themselves on the wrong side of an upset to start the season.

Penn State

Pitt will have an opportunity to get revenge at home after last year’s 33-14 beatdown at the hands of rival Penn State on Sept. 9. This game affords the Panthers more than just revenge — it’s also an opportunity to move ahead in the rebooted series, which is tied 1-1.

The matchup won’t be easy, and the Panthers will definitely head into the game as the underdog. Penn State ended the season ranked No. 9 with an impressive 35-28 win over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl, and are expected to start the season ranked in the top 10.

Still, the Nittany Lions are a bit of a mystery heading into the new season after losing multiple playmakers on both sides of the ball. Standout junior running back Saquon Barkley, senior tight end Mike Gesicki, graduate student wideout DaeSean Hamilton and senior safety Marcus Allen are all leaving for the NFL draft.

Barkley was an especially potent Panther poacher during his time in State College, putting up 173 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns.

The Nittany Lions present a mountainous challenge to the Panthers early in the season, but that’s the thing with rivalries — anything can happen. Perhaps Pitt — as it often does — will revel in the potential to play spoiler to a team with National Championship aspirations.

UCF

The Knights finished off the 2017 season doing the unthinkable in modern college football by completing a perfect season. The 2018 UCF team will field a vastly different program, headed by new head coach Josh Heupel.

Former head coach Scott Frost signed on to coach the Nebraska Cornhuskers for his alma mater at the end of the season. Frost turned the program around in thwo years by taking the Golden Knights from 0-12 the year before he got there to 13-0 and a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn.

The UCF defense will see the most crucial turnover in the offseason, as the Knights lost one-handed senior linebacker Shaquem Griffin — who was third on the defense in tackles — and junior defensive back Mike Hughes to graduation and the NFL draft. Hughes led the team in pass breakups, served as the kick returner and is an expected early draft pick in the NFL draft.

While the defense will have some kinks to work out, the offense is likely to run on all cylinders. The Knights are set to return junior dual-threat quarterback McKenzie Milton. Milton marched UCF up and down the field last year in its open offense.

The Knights’ game will serve as an interesting test for the type of team the Panthers are. If Pitt can beat UCF on Sept. 29, it could indicate that a bowl game is in the cards. If the Panthers get walloped, well, it’s still pretty early in the season.

Notre Dame

Head coach Brian Kelly heads into the new year with a new defensive coordinator and a gaggle of talented recruits. Kelly, whose time at Notre Dame has produced mixed results, likely needs this season to end in a major bowl birth to keep his gig with the Irish.

Kelly will have a great deal of talent at his disposal after bringing in top ten recruiting classes the last two years to go along with an already talented team.

New defensive coordinator Clark Lea takes the reigns after spending just one year as the Fighting Irish linebackers coach. The Fighting Irish defense will likely be on the same page and swarming by the time they see the Panthers on Oct. 13.

Although the defense has a new leader at the top, it’s the offense that’s likely to be in flux when they face the Panthers. Last season saw starting junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush struggle with injuries and the new offense.

Wimbush at times had issues throwing the football, and if his issues continue, Notre Dame might be fielding a brand new quarterback when Pitt gets into town.

The game against the Fighting Irish marks a third — and final — difficult out-of-conference opponent for the Panthers. With such an obviously tilted schedule outside the ACC, Pitt will likely feel relieved when they take on familiar faces in the conference.

 

Correction: In an original version of this story, The Pitt News referred to the UCF Knights as the UCF Golden Knights, which was incorrect. The Pitt News also claimed head coach Scott Frost of UCF was with the team for three years, but this was also false. Frost was only present with the Knights for two seasons in 2016 and 2017. The Pitt News regrets these errors, and the story has been updated to reflect these changes.

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Pitt football looks ahead to difficult non-conference schedule