For a program breaking in its fifth head coach in six seasons, Pittsburgh has been remarkably consistent.
The problem is the Panthers have been consistently mediocre going 6-7, 7-6, 6-7 and 6-7 since jettisoning coach Dave Wannestedt after the 2010 season.
“It’s getting old to us,” running back James Conner, the 2014 ACC player of the year, said last month at the ACC kickoff in Pinehurst.
Conner, who led the ACC with 1,765 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns last season, was referring to the mediocrity, but he could have been talking about the coaching carousel.
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After eight seasons as a defensive coordinator at Michigan State, Pat Narduzzi is Pitt’s new coach, but the program is not starting over. With Conner, receiver Tyler Boyd and an experienced defense, Narduzzi inherits a group capable of winning the Coastal Division.
Joe Giglio’s 2015 ACC Football Forecast
The Conner-Boyd one-two punch has kept the Panthers competitive (7-9) in conference play, despite problems elsewhere. The biggest issue last season was finishing games. The Panthers had a fourth-quarter lead in three of their losses. In a double overtime loss to Duke, kicker Chris Blewitt missed a 26-yard field goal that would have won the game at the end of regulation.
“Too many games late in the fourth quarter we let it slip away from us,” Conner said.
Narduzzi should shore up a defense that ranked No. 34 in the country in yards allowed (359.8) but bled points (26.3 per game) in too many games.
Pitt’s hoping Narduzzi, 49, will be around for the long haul. The program hasn’t had much stability since Wannestedt, a longtime NFL coach, went 9-4, 10-3 and 8-5 in his last three seasons.
Mike Haywood was hired to replace Wannestedt after the 2010 season and was fired after 16 days due to a domestic violence arrest.
Todd Graham lasted one season, 6-7 in 2011, before leaving for Arizona State. Paul Chryst, a former Wisconsin assistant, followed Graham. Chryst made it through three seasons before returning to Wisconsin in December to be the Badgers’ coach.
Chryst left Narduzzi a better program than the one he found if only because of Conner and Boyd, the only player in ACC history to surpass the 1,000-yard receiving mark in both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
The trick for the first-time head coach will be figuring out how to turn those two stars into more than six or seven wins.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Pitt at a glance
2014: 6-7 (3-5 ACC)
Coach: Pat Narduzzi (first year at Pitt)
Returning starters: Offense (8), Defense (7), Special teams (2)
▪ James Conner doesn’t pick up all those rushing yards without a little help. The offensive line has improved a great deal in the past two years. Sophomore left tackle Adam Bisnowaty is a preseason All-ACC pick.
▪ Junior quarterback Chad Voytik got off to a slow start last season, his first as the starter, but came on at the end of the season. He averaged 198.6 passing yards per game over the last six games and only threw one interception.
▪ A little help here? Junior receiver Tyler Boyd is good but he’s not Superman. Boyd led Pitt with 78 catches for 1,261 yards last season. Second on the team in receptions was tight end J.P. Holtz (21) and second in receiving yards was receiver Manasseh Garner (201).
▪ The Panthers ranked 98th in turnover margin (minus-5) last season and only had 14 takeaways. Pat Narduzzi’s defense at Michigan State forced 34 turnovers last season.
Narduzzi duplicates his defensive success from Michigan State while Conner and Boyd get a little more help which leads to a 6-2 ACC record and a division title.
The Panthers can’t beat Iowa or Akron on the road and they can’t find enough ACC wins to get back to a bowl game.
The talent is there and the schedule is there for a breakout for Panthers. First-year coaches usually get a little more effort and Narduzzi should be able to coax at least nine wins out of this experienced group.
Newcomer to watch
Jordan Whitehead, S
The top-rated prospect from the state of Pennsylvania, Whitehead can do a little bit of everything and probably will for the Panthers. With three other starters returning in the secondary, he has some experienced teammates to help him learn.
Sept. 5 Youngstown State
Sept. 12 at Akron
Sept. 19 at Iowa
Sept. 26 OPEN
Oct. 3 at Virginia Tech
Oct. 10 Virginia
Oct. 17 at Georgia Tech
Oct. 24 at Syracuse
Oct. 29 UNC
Nov. 7 Notre Dame
Nov. 14 at Duke
Nov. 21 Louisville
Nov. 27 Miami
The Panthers lost to both Akron and Iowa at home last season. They beat Notre Dame in 2013, which was also at Heinz Field.
The ACC schedule doesn’t include Florida State or Clemson, so that’s good. The trips to the two Techs could be problematic.
The star power of Conner and Boyd obviously counts for something – ESPN gave the Panthers a Thursday night showcase game (UNC) and a Friday game (Miami).
ACC preview schedule
May 31: No. 1 Florida State
June 7: No. 2 Clemson
June 14: No. 3 N.C. State
June 21: No. 4 Louisville
June 28: No. 5 Boston College
July 5: No. 6 Syracuse
July 12: No. 7 Wake Forest
July 19: No. 1 Virginia Tech
July 26: No. 2 Georgia Tech
Aug. 2: No. 3 UNC
Aug. 9: No. 4 Duke
Aug. 16: No. 5 Pitt
Aug. 23: No. 6 Miami
Aug. 30: No. 7 Virginia
Next in line
Pitt’s head coaches since 2010:
2010: Dave Wannestedt
Mike Haywood (fired after 16 days)
2011: Todd Graham
2012: Paul Chryst
2013: Paul Chryst
2014: Paul Chryst
2015: Pat Narduzzi