Two promising head coaches begin their tenures at new schools when Youngstown State visits the neighboring Pittsburgh Panthers. Youngstown native Bo Pelini comes from Nebraska to guide the Penguins, who knocked off Pitt at Heinz Field just three years ago. Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi begins his tenure at Pitt ironically playing the program his father Bill guided to Division I status in the 1980s.
Youngstown State at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Three Things To Watch
1. Who Steps up in Boyd's absence?
Pitt junior wide receiver Tyler Boyd will be suspended for this game due to his offseason DUI. despite establishing himself as a pro prospect last season after averaging more than 16 yards on 78 receptions. Unfortunately no other receiver of note returned to the Panthers this season, thus making junior Dontez Ford, who caught three passes in 2014, Pitt's most experienced receiver coming into the game. Zack Challingsworth is projected to start opposite Ford, which means the two starting receivers against YSU only played Class AA football in the WPIAL. Freshmen Quadree Henderson and Tre Tipton could also see action. Henderson is only 5-9, but Tipton, a quarterback at Apollo-Ridge, excelled in three sports and was the Class AA Pennsylvania long jump champion. Also look to Elijah Zeise, a redshirt freshman originally recruited as a defensive back, but also a top-100 recruit out of Class AAAA North Allegheny.
2. How much action does Conner get?
If Pitt were to have an outstanding season in 2015, junior running back James Conner will likely receive some Heisman attention. A player who rushed for 5.9 yards a carry in 2014 with 26 touchdowns and 1,800 yards would figure to be the main contributor to Panthers fortunes, and Pitt will go as far as he can take them. Furthermore, with a somewhat sketchy defense, the ability to run down the clock figures to be paramount. That said, if Pitt needs 30 carries from Conner against Youngstown State, something is wrong. Chris James rushed for 439 yards on 87 carries last year and is projected to see more action this year, if for no other reason than to save Conner from pounding. It might speak best for long-range Panthers fortunes for James and/or highly regarded Darrin Hall to be the leading rusher in this game.
3. Will Chad Voytik be protected?
Ideally the game plan would have junior quarterback Chad Voytik establish a rapport with a new receiver for a couple of long bombs, secure a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, and then be taken out sometime in the second half for an easy victory, much like Pitt won their tune-up game against Delaware 62-0 last year. That won't happen this season with Terrell Williams and Derek Rivers lining up at defensive end for the Penguins. Rivers had 13 sacks last year and Williams complied 10, while Pitt will play four new starters on the offensive line. Thankfully for Pitt, left tackle is not the position the Panthers must replace, as 6-6 305-pound Adam Bisnowaty returns for his junior year.
Everyone knows Pitt lost to Youngstown State, 31-17, three years ago in Paul Chryst's debut as Panthers coach. But does a YSU victory really seem likely this time out? Yes, YSU has been projected to be a Top 25 FCS team, and new Pelini has brought in several quality transfers from FBS. But a Pitt loss? No. A close game? Perhaps.
Prediction: Pitt 35, Youngstown State 17
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.