Pittsburgh has suffered through a difficult non-conference schedule with losses to Penn State and Oklahoma State to go along with an Atlantic Coast Conference defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech. Sitting at 2-3 overall, the Panthers are a far cry from last year's dangerous team that handed eventual national champion Clemson its only loss and Penn State one of its three.
Although Pitt is only one game into league play, it's pretty safe to assume that this team isn't a contender in the Coastal Division, and bowl eligibility should be the more realistic goal.
The same goes for Syracuse in the Atlantic Division. The Orange also come in with a 2-3 record and an 0-1 mark in ACC play, and it's hard to see any sort of major ascension in head coach Dino Babers' second year in Central New York.
Over the past two weeks, the Orange have shown some life with a near upset of LSU in Baton Rouge and a decent comeback to make their loss to NC State more respectable after falling in a big hole. But Babers knows that there is more work to be done as the program tries to turn the corner.
Pittsburgh at Syracuse
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 12:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ACC Network
Spread: Syracuse -4
Three Things to Watch
1. No controversy?
Pitt has shuffled quarterbacks all season, with varying results. It's either been Max Browne or Ben DiNucci (above, right), and if last weekend's game was any indication, Browne should hold down the job for the Syracuse game. Against Rice, Browne was nearly perfect, as he completed 28-of-32 passes for a career-high 410 yards and four touchdowns. The former big-time USC recruit has never really lived up to his potential, but the Panthers are banking on the hope that he at least approaches it. DiNucci is more of an athletic option who can extend plays with his feet and won the job from Browne earlier in the season, only to lose it back. If Browne struggles against the Orange, don't be surprised to see DiNucci out there, but Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi would like to see some stability at the position.
2. Dazzling duo
When Babers came to Syracuse, he promised an exciting, up-tempo offense, and the players who have benefited the most from that scheme this year have been wide receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips. In terms of receptions per game, the two are both in the top three in the nation. Ishmael ranks first overall with 51 catches for 632 yards and two touchdowns, while Phillips is third with 44 grabs for 420 yards and two scores. Phillips went off last week in the loss to NC State, catching 17 passes for 188 yards. In other words, when Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey drops back to throw — and that is quite often — there's a good bet the ball will find one of those two players. Each has good hands and the ability to gain extra yards, so Pitt will have to do its best to neutralize them throughout the course of the game.
3. Running in place
Neither of these teams has put together the type of rushing attack that will scare anyone. In Syracuse's case, that's not necessarily the end of the world, because so many of the Orange's passing plays are basically default runs with their short, quick attacks on the edge. So as Syracuse enters the game with the 81st-ranked rushing offense, it's not time to panic. Pitt, however, leans on a strong ground game, making its struggles more of an issue. The Panthers rank 108th in the nation on the ground with just 3.09 yards per rush and 114.4 yards per game. Pitt could not even get much going against Rice, and whether it's with running backs Chawntez Moss and Qadree Ollison or wide receiver Quadree Henderson, who is used frequently on jet sweeps, better performance against Syracuse is critical.
Neither team has played up to its capability this season, but the Orange seem to have competed better against the stronger opponents on their schedule. The chance to come home to the Carrier Dome after a pair of tough road games should serve Syracuse well. The Orange should muster enough explosive plays on offense to earn the team's first ACC win of 2017.
Prediction: Syracuse 31, Pittsburgh 24
— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.