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Pittsburgh Football: 2018 Panthers Preview and Prediction

Darrin Hall, Pittsburgh Football

Darrin Hall, Pittsburgh Football

Back-to-back 8-5 seasons gave way to a 5-7 record for Pittsburgh in 2017, although the campaign ended on a high note with an upset of then-undefeated Miami. If Pat Narduzzi's team is to rebound this fall plenty of new playmakers will need to emerge on both sides of the ball. The defense returns seven starters but will have a new coordinator running things. The offense has a solid backfield but questions elsewhere. A difficult non-conference schedule won't allow the Panthers' much margin of error as they look to get back to a bowl game.

Previewing Pittsburgh Football's Offense for 2018

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Clemson Football/ACC Magazine

Late in its regular-season finale against second-ranked Miami, Pittsburgh put the ball in the hands of then-freshman Kenny Pickett. And he delivered. On fourth-and-5 with 2:45 remaining, Pickett raced 22 yards on a naked bootleg for the game-clinching touchdown. The play convinced the Pittsburgh coaching staff that it had found its quarterback of the future. So impressive was the young man that it caused an upheaval of the roster. Quarterbacks Ben DiNucci, who started six games, and Thomas MacVittie went elsewhere. The hope is that Pickett continues to evolve while transforming an offense that ranked 73rd nationally in passing, 86th in rushing and 97th in total yards.

Pickett should be aided by a backfield featuring seniors Darrin Hall (who ran for a combined 486 yards in Weeks 8-10) and Qadree Ollison. Wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes provides Pickett with a sure-handed target (43 receptions, 531 yards, two scores last season), but the remainder of the unit is relatively untested. Pittsburgh is seeking a playmaker to replace speedsters Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson.

Up front, two starters return, notably honorable mention All-ACC tackle Alex Bookser. A player to watch is graduate transfer Stefano Millin, stepping in for two-time All-ACC pick Brian O'Neill at left tackle.

Previewing Pittsburgh Football's Defense for 2018

First-year coordinator Randy Bates inherits a unit that returns seven starters, including three linemen and three linebackers. The longtime linebackers coach at Northwestern has been tasked with improving a pass defense that ranked 106th nationally (254.2 ypg) and a pass rush that managed only 23 sacks. A potential game-changer up front is senior end Dewayne Hendrix, who led the Panthers in quarterback hurries with eight. The anchor is senior nose tackle Shane Roy, who had a sack and two pass breakups while starting all 12 games.

Returning linebackers Saleem Brightwell, Oluwaseun Idowu and Elijah Zeise combined for 216 tackles in '17. Those numbers could balloon under Bates, who oversaw the development of both All-American Anthony Walker Jr. and Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year Paddy Fisher at Northwestern. Idowu, a two-year starter and second-team All-ACC pick, led the team in tackles (94), tackles for a loss (11.5) and sacks (five). The return of Quintin Wirginis, who sat out last season, adds another high-end talent to the linebacking corps.

A pair of four-star recruits -- safety Damar Hamlin and cornerback Paris Ford, both Pittsburgh natives -- must live up to their pre-college reputations.

Previewing Pittsburgh Football's Specialists for 2018

Despite converting 55- and 56-yard field goals in '17, Alex Kessman must become more consistent after connecting on just 58 percent of his attempts (11-of-19). Freshman punter Kirk Christodoulou has been tasked with replacing four-year starter and All-ACC pick Ryan Winslow.

Final Analysis

In the past two seasons, Pittsburgh has pulled off major upsets against Miami, Clemson and Penn State. But at what point do the Panthers advance past the occasional stunning win and start to develop more consistency across the board? Coach Pat Narduzzi's program took a step back in 2017. It finished 5-7 (3-5 in the ACC) after posting 8-5 records in each of his first two seasons. The mission in 2018 is to prove the program is trending upward, as was the case in 2015 and '16.

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National Ranking: 43

ACC Coastal Prediction: 4