There are several challenges that face the Pittsburgh football team in 2017. First, they will have to replace running back James Conner and all he meant on and off the field. There will be a new look on offense with coordinator Matt Canada now in Baton Rouge. And a defense without star rusher Ejuan Price must develop in head coach Pat Narduzzi’s third year.
Here is a ranking of Pittsburgh’s most difficult games, from easiest to hardest.
12. Sept. 2 vs. Youngstown State
Former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini brought the once proud Penguins back into FCS title contention, leading Youngstown all the way to the national title game in 2016. But Pelini’s crew suffered significant losses and this game should be an easy victory for the Panthers.
11. Sept. 30 vs. Rice
The Owls went 3-9 last fall and are trending in the wrong direction under longtime head coach David Bailiff. Rice loses all of their starters at the offensive skill positions and had one of the nation’s worst defenses in 2016.
10. Oct. 28 vs. Virginia
It was an ugly first season for Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall. A 45-31 loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 15 was the first of seven straight defeats to end the season. Linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding should lead a formidable defense but the Cavaliers’ offense will likely sputter again.
9. Oct. 7 at Syracuse
Coming off the Rice game, the Panthers should be ready for the Orange. Syracuse does feature one of the ACC’s best returning quarterbacks in Eric Dungey, but protecting him has been a problem.
8. Oct. 21 at Duke
The Blue Devils seemingly have a quarterback in sophomore Daniel Jones. With that and the other returning offensive talent, Duke should score some points against Pitt. But there are three new starters on the defensive line and in the secondary, which will give the Panthers’ offense some opportunities.
7. Nov. 9 vs. North Carolina
Forget about all of North Carolina’s substantial losses on offense. UNC hasn’t come close to stopping the run in three years and if that continues, Pitt's Qadree Ollison could easily surpass his 2016 rushing total of 127 yards in this game.
6. Oct. 14 vs. NC State
The Wolfpack were eighth in the nation against the run last year and return their entire defensive front seven. If Pitt is going to have success in this game it will have to come through the air where the Panthers could expose an inexperienced secondary.
5. Nov. 18 at Virginia Tech
The Hokies started to put the clamps on the Coastal title last year when they won at Pittsburgh in late October. By the time this game is played, Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente should have the quarterback position figured out and Bud Foster’s defense should be running at a high level.
4. Sept. 23 at Georgia Tech
After facing preseason ranked teams in consecutive weeks, the Panthers face the unenviable task of going to Atlanta to try and stop Georgia Tech’s option attack. The Yellow Jackets lose quarterback Justin Thomas but return just about everyone else on offense and eight starters on defense.
3. Sept. 16 vs. Oklahoma State
Pittsburgh’s secondary, which took its lumps last season, will face a huge test in week three when the Cowboys come to town. Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph contributed to Pitt’s pass defense woes last fall when he threw for 540 yards and a pair of scores in a 45-38 Cowboys victory.
2. Nov. 24 vs. Miami
Unlike Oklahoma State, Miami needs to break in a new quarterback. But the Hurricanes also put a very large number up on Pitt last year, winning 51-28. Part of Pittsburgh's problem was stopping wide receiver Ahmmon Richards, who caught eight passes for 144 yards. Now a sophomore, Richards may be even more difficult to defend this season.
1. Sept. 9 at Penn State
Pittsburgh knocked off the Nittany Lions at home early last year, before PSU really got rolling. This time the Panthers will have to go to Happy Valley and face an explosive offense led by quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley, and a deep receiving corps.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.