Projecting Pitt football’s 2020 season

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Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt football’s 2020 campaign kicks off one week from Saturday at home against Austin Peay.

By Tyler Mathes, Staff Writer

Pitt football’s 2020 campaign kicks off one week from Saturday at home against Austin Peay, meaning it’s time to speculate on how the Panthers will fare in this strange season.

It can be a tough task to predict Pitt’s game-by-game schedule, knowing that at any point they could easily decide to drop games to below-average teams, or randomly beat one of the best teams in college football.

Most of the games on the schedule will come down to the offense’s ability to not only score, but keep the defense off the field. We saw the Pitt offense struggle mightily time and time again last season, yet the Panthers defense still kept the team in games late.

Can Pitt’s offense put the ball in the end zone this year and buy the defense a lead, or will the defense have to shut out every opponent to win games? The offense and defense split time on the field last year almost equally, so if the Pitt offense can stay on the field for just a few more minutes per game to give the defense rest, the Panthers will emerge as one of the best teams in the ACC.

Sept. 12 vs Austin Peay: Win (1-0)

An FCS school in the Ohio Valley Conference shouldn’t present much of a challenge for Pitt, who hasn’t lost to an FCS program since 2012. The Governors’ air attack will keep them in the game during the first half against Pitt.

Redshirt junior quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall fell to an injury in game two of the 2019 campaign but will be back at the helm this season for Austin Peay. In only his second game back in about a year, Oatsvall will struggle against Pitt’s top-tier defense, and the Panthers will start the season off with a win.

Sept. 19 vs Syracuse: Win (2-0)

Syracuse put together a mediocre season last year, and I expect a similar result again.

The loss of Damarri Mathis in the secondary will make this a closer bout than last season’s meeting, which Pitt never trailed. I expect the Orange to get off to a hot start, thanks to a ground game that improved steadily over last season and will only get better this year. But the Panthers pass rush will cause redshirt junior quarterback Tommy DeVito to struggle and will cool the Orange off and take the win.

Sept. 26 vs Louisville: Loss (2-1)

Redshirt junior quarterback Micale Cunningham returns to lead a potent Louisville offense into battle with one of the most elite defenses in college football. However, the loss of junior offensive tackle Mekhi Becton on the offensive line will lead to constant pressure from Pitt’s pass rush, which led the FBS with 51 sacks last year

I’ve gone back and forth on the outcome of this game, because it could go either way. In the end, I think Pitt’s offense will make one too many mistakes, allowing Louisville to score just enough to walk away with a hard-fought road victory. 

Oct. 3 vs NC State: Win (3-1)

Facing a team coming off of a 4-8 season, we can expect Pitt to cruise to victory in this game. The Wolfpack defense isn’t anything special, ranking 72nd in total defense last season, and the offense is average as well. Pitt’s defense will make life miserable for the Wolfpack and whichever quarterback wins the starting job by this point in the season.

Oct. 10 @ Boston College: Win (4-1)

I’m picking Pitt to win this game almost entirely because Boston College lost junior running back AJ Dillon to the NFL. Dillon ran for 178 yards and one touchdown against Pitt last November, and without him Boston College’s offense has significantly weakened. Junior David Bailey is a very capable running back, but not close to the player Dillon was. Pitt’s defense will have a much easier time getting BC off the field, and the Panthers will storm into Massachusetts and take this game.

Oct. 17 @ Miami: Win (5-1)

When Miami came to Heinz Field last year, Pitt’s offense could only muster up four field goals. The Hurricanes have quite a few question marks this year on both sides of the ball, most notably senior transfer quarterback D’Eriq King and how he will play in a new system.

Aggravated by a poor showing against a subpar Miami team last year — and coming off two consecutive wins — Pitt will expand its win streak to three heading into a fierce matchup with Notre Dame.

Oct. 24 vs Notre Dame: Win (6-1)

In January, former TPN Sports Editor Trent Leonard picked Pitt to win this game, and I will second his prediction. Redshirt senior Ian Book is still under center for Notre Dame, but losing all four of his top targets from last year will put the Fighting Irish at a significant disadvantage. Even with the loss of Mathis, Pitt’s secondary will shut down the new Notre Dame receiving corps, turning last year’s three-point loss into a huge upset late in the season.

Nov. 7 @ FSU: Win (7-1)

For years, Florida State was a college football powerhouse. Those days are now gone — with former head coach Willie Taggart out the door as well, making room for Mike Norvell to come in and lead the Seminoles’ coaching staff. However, Norvell will struggle in his first year adjusting the team to a new system, especially with so much preparation time lost to COVID-19. Norvell’s defense will fail to stop senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who earned a spot on the Maxwell Award watchlist this season, from connecting with returning No. 2 pass catcher, redshirt Senior wide receiver Taysir Mack.

Nov. 14 @ Georgia Tech: Win (8-1)

In his second year as Georgia Tech’s head coach, Geoff Collins will look to improve on the abysmal 3-9 record of his first year. The Yellow Jackets are on their way to competing with the best of the best in the ACC, but a ways away remains until they reach that level.

Pitt will walk away with an easy win, thanks to a strong passing attack overpowering a Georgia Tech defense that gave up almost 6 yards per play last season. Pitt will ride a six-game win streak heading into potentially its two toughest games on the schedule.

Nov. 21 vs Virginia Tech: Win (9-1)

Another tough pick, but I’m going with the Panthers on this one. The Hokies blew out the Panthers a year ago, but will lose their All-ACC redshirt sophomore cornerback Caleb Farley on defense and their best red zone threat — redshirt junior wide receiver Damon Hazelton — on offense. The Hokies have budding star quarterback Hendon Hooker under center, but Pitt’s pass rush will keep him in check to take the win heading into the Clemson finale.

Nov. 28 @ Clemson: Loss (9-2)

Clemson is one of the best teams in college football, with the potential first overall pick in next year’s NFL draft leading their offense. Pitt’s defense is excellent, but its offense will struggle to keep up with the star-studded Tigers.

Despite Pitt’s impressive season up to this point, the Tigers’ discipline and talent will triumph in Death Valley with ease.

Final season prediction: 9-2

If Pitt can put together a nine-win season, it will certainly count as a successful year. With the ACC’s restructured schedules, Pitt lost an opportunity to play Miami (OH), Richmond and Marshall — three expected wins. Instead, Pitt will play one of the best teams in the FCS for its nonconference opponent.

I envision the Panthers playing every game competitively this year, with the exception of Clemson. Their elite defense will at least make every game a tight one, and even the Louisville loss has the potential to flip to a win. This season has the potential to be Pitt’s first nine-win season since 2009 — a season to remember.

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