College football teams rarely begin their season against a conference opponent. But that's precisely what will happen on Saturday night at Heinz Field.
The Pittsburgh Panthers will host the Virginia Cavaliers in a critical ACC Coastal matchup that could prove to have serious implications down the road. Virginia was picked by the media to win the Coastal Division this season.
Last year's Cavaliers team was 8-5 and a contender to win its first ACC Coastal Division title. At one point, Virginia had a 6-2 record but lost to Pittsburgh at home and struggled after that, losing three of its last four regular-season games.
The Panthers actually won the Coastal Division, but they looked like anything but champions during their final three games of 2018. After getting embarrassed against the Miami Hurricanes, Pittsburgh lost 42-10 in the ACC Championship Game to the Clemson Tigers. Then the Panthers went on to lose to the Stanford Cardinal in the Sun Bowl 14-13.
Pittsburgh leads the all-time series versus Virginia 8-3. Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall has an 0-3 record against the Panthers during his time in the ACC.
Virginia at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Virginia -2.5
When Virginia Has the Ball
Outside of Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Virginia probably has the best quarterback in the ACC in Bryce Perkins. In 13 games last season, Perkins threw for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He also rushed for 923 yards and nine touchdowns for the Cavaliers.
Surrounding Perkins, the Cavaliers return several key starters. However, Virginia will need to find a way to replace the production of Jordan Ellis, who rushed for 1,026 yards and 10 touchdowns a season ago.
Virginia will also need to find a top receiver, as Olamide Zaccheaus has moved on the NFL. However, Joe Reed, who has been a reliable returner, should be more of a focal point offensively.
The Cavaliers offensive line is a question mark entering this season, as they lost two senior leaders in Marcus Applefield and Jake Fieler.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
After their struggles late in the year, the Panthers brought in offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who spent the past five seasons as the head coach at Massachusetts. In three of those seasons at UMass, Whipple oversaw a Minutemen offense that finished among the top 20 in passing yards. In 2018, UMass averaged 298.1 passing yards per game, which ranked No. 14 in the country.
Kenny Pickett returns for the Panthers at quarterback, but he was inconsistent a season ago. In 14 starts, Pickett threw for 12 touchdowns against six interceptions.
The biggest question is who will get the bulk of the running back carries for the Panthers. Both A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley Jr. are listed as Pittsburgh's top running back on the depth chart. Former four-star prospect Mychale Salahuddin and freshman Vincent Davis could also see time against Virginia.
Taysir Mack, Tre Tipton and Maurice Ffrench will be the Panthers' three top receivers in their new pass-heavy offense. Also, expect Whipple to get tight ends Will Gragg and Nakia Griffin-Stewart involved in the offense.
The biggest question is Pittsburgh's offensive line, which must replace four starters from a year ago. Against an experienced Virginia defense, this inexperienced unit could show growing pains in the opener.
Pittsburgh has a four-game winning streak in its series with Virginia. But that definitely could come to an end on Saturday as the Panthers face one of the best Cavaliers teams in recent memory.
Yes, the Panthers' offense should be improved under Whipple's direction. But early in the season, there will be a transition period. That should give the Cavaliers' experienced defense an advantage.
Perkins should be able to jump-start Virginia's offense with his arm and his legs. If Virginia can control the clock and get a lead early, the Cavaliers should be able to come out on top easily.
Prediction: Virginia 31, Pittsburgh 20
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.