It may be a week later than usual, but the Pittsburgh Panthers' opener against Austin Peay looks like a regular first game. It's an ACC team getting a jumpstart on the season by playing an FCS opponent. However, we know that there is little about this season that can be deemed usual and the fact that Austin Peay is only scheduled to play three games at this moment is a case in point.
With many FCS programs deciding to forego the 2020 season, Pitt is the only ACC school that will be playing an FCS team this week. Meanwhile, this will be the Governors second of their three games on the year, as they lost to Central Arkansas 24-17 in week zero and will face Cincinnati next week.
Austin Peay at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 12 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Pittsburgh -27.5
When Austin Peay Has the Ball
The Governors expect that the strength of their team will lie in the passing game that features now healthy quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall and star receiver DeAngelo Wilson. Unfortunately, Wilson missed the season opener against Central Arkansas for an undisclosed reason, and his status is still uncertain at this time. With Wilson out, Oatsvall completed less than 50 percent of his throws, none of which resulted in a touchdown.
Instead, running back CJ Evans Jr. was the primary threat, gaining 98 yards on 10 carries. That wasn't enough to earn a win against the Bears and Austin Peay will certainly need more the defeat Pitt. Even without Jaylen Twyman — the star defensive lineman who opted out this season — the Panthers have one of the best defensive lines in the ACC. Patrick Jones II and Deslin Alexandre were key contributors at end in 2019 and seniors Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp, two valuable pieces in 2018 that were injured last year, return to provide solid depth.
Even if Wilson is back this week, throwing the ball against the Panthers won't be a picnic, either. The secondary, led by safeties Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin, is also among the best in the conference. The Governors will have their hands full moving the ball against what should be an outstanding Pittsburgh defense.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
The reason Pittsburgh wasn't picked higher in the ACC preseason poll is due in large part to the questions on offense. In 2019, the Panthers were 119th nationally in rushing offense and quarterback Kenny Pickett's 6.6 yards per attempt passing ranked 91st nationally among the 98 players with enough throws to qualify.
Improvement has to start up front and Pittsburgh returns four starters, including center Jimmy Morrissey, one of the top players in the land at his position. A.J. Davis is once again the starter at tailback, but watch out for prized freshman Israel Abanikanda, who will get an opportunity to shine. Despite losing leading pass catcher Maurice Ffrench, Pickett will have Taysir Mack back, and junior Shocky Jacques-Louis will be asked to shoulder more of a load this season.
Central Arkansas was able to move the ball effectively on the ground early on against Austin Peay and that eventually gave the Bears some looks in the passing game. In the end, Central Arkansas finished with 460 yards of total offense. Cornerback Kordell Jackson is the best player on the Governors defense, and he had seven stops with half a sack and another tackle for lost yardage in the season opener.
Austin Peay is going to have great difficulty moving the ball against the Pittsburgh defense. Their best hope is to see if Evans can churn out some yards and open things up for Oatsvall in the passing game. But that's unlikely. The Pittsburgh defensive front should have their way with the Austin Peay offensive line and disrupt much of what the Governors want to do. The big question in this game is, what will the Pitt offense look like? The Panthers have to develop a stronger running game and opening against an FCS squad that had troubles stopping the rush in their first game seems like good medicine. Expect a solid, but potentially unspectacular, offensive effort in their first game, but combined with a dominant defense, Pittsburgh will have more than enough for an easy victory.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 31, Austin Peay 0
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.