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The 3-2-1 Column: Big games, close games, over/unders and more

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In this week's 3-2-1 Column, we're thinking about Pitt's biggest games, the closest games, win totals and a lot more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

That’s a big one
In case you missed it - and I hope you didn’t - I had Phil Steele as a guest on the podcast this week. He’s well-regarded as one of the leading national college football experts; some analysts/reporters may know about their region or their conference, but there’s arguably no one with the breadth of Phil’s research when it comes to the national scene. His knowledge stretches from sea to shining sea.

I talked to Phil about a lot of topics regarding Pitt football and the ACC Coastal Division, ranging from the Panthers’ 2018 performance (he gave them a B+) to what to expect for 2019 (like a lot of us, he’s not entirely sure). And to wrap up the interview, I asked him about the season opener against Virginia.

Rightfully so, Phil is of the opinion that the Aug. 31 game at Heinz Field is kind-of sort-of maybe a big game.

Yeah, he didn’t hedge at all. He said it was a huge game, and he’s not wrong about that. I think we all know that there’s a lot at stake for Pitt in that game, but it bears repeating:

The season opener might be the closest thing Pitt has to a “must-win,” at least as we look at the schedule before the season. There’s the obvious advantage of getting out to a 1-0 start in the ACC. That much almost goes without saying. But the expectation for Pitt this season is and should be a competitive position in the Coastal Division, and by that I mean the Panthers finishing no worse that second or possibly third if a tiebreaker doesn’t go their way.

They should be in the Coastal race until the very end, and that proposition looks tougher any time they lose a conference game. As such, they need to win that first one.

There’s more on the line, though. Beating Virginia can create a bottom-line truth that will supersede anything that happens in the four games that follow the opener. Of course, I’m talking about Ohio at home, Penn State on the road, UCF at home and Delaware at home.

Now, if Pitt loses all four of those games, the Virginia contest will probably be overshadowed, but that’s an unlikely proposition. The Panthers should do no worse than 2-2 in that stretch; that’s the minimum expectation, and they should also be competitive with Penn State and UCF with a shot at 3-1 or 4-0.

If they lose to Penn State and/or UCF, it’s going to sting - particularly the former, since it’s currently the last game in that storied series - but Pitt can do a lot to lessen that sting by winning the opener. The mantra of, “Yes but they’re 1-0 in the ACC and that’s what counts” is an important one.

Pitt lived on a similar mantra last season. After seven games, the Panthers were 3-4 overall, having lost three of the last four. That’s not a good spot to be in when you’re one game into the second half of the season. But they were also 2-1 in the ACC, having beaten Georgia Tech and, in a home upset, Syracuse in overtime.

Up next, they had Duke at home, Virginia on the road, Virginia Tech at home, Wake Forest on the road and Miami on the road. It was a winnable stretch that could conceivably lead Pitt to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game, and that was exactly what happened.

It’s with that in mind that we know the four nonconference games this season don’t matter as much as the eight ACC contests. And those eight start with the opener against Virginia; winning that game creates a security blanket of sorts.

The important ones
Speaking of Virginia…

There’s a bit of a trend in Pitt’s games against a handful of ACC opponents since the Panthers joined the conference in 2013.

Specifically, I’m thinking of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Syracuse - four opponents who make up half of Pitt’s ACC schedule each year. Those four games are a crucial part of each season because they represent four relatively comparable opponents who Pitt should have a chance to beat every season.

Of course, those four schools probably feel the same way about Pitt, and the reason is that the Panthers have a .625 win percentage (15-9) against those teams since joining the conference. That’s good but not overwhelming, and certainly not the kind of rate that would lead any of those opponents to believe Pitt is unbeatable.

There are a few things that stand out to me about those games and how they have figured into Pitt’s six seasons in the ACC. The first is that there’s a pretty direct correlation between how Pitt does against Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Syracuse and how the Panthers do overall in a given season.

For instance, when Pitt has posted a 2-2 or 1-3 record against those four teams - the Panthers have never been 0-4 against them - it tends to indicate a poor overall record. Like when Pitt went 2-2 against those four teams in 2013, the Panthers won six regular-season games. Or when they went 2-2 the next year and won six overall. Or when Pitt was 1-3 again in those four games in 2017 and finished with five wins.

Conversely, the two 4-0 records against those two teams came in 2015 (8-5) and 2018 (7-7 with a Coastal title that was boosted by the perfect record). And in 2016, the Panthers were 3-1 against those four teams - the 39-36 loss to Virginia Tech was the lone defeat - and won eight games overall.

It’s not a perfect correlation, but those games make up a third of the overall schedule and half of the conference slate, so there’s some significance to be placed on those games.

Another observation is that Pat Narduzzi has done pretty well in those games. Paul Chryst went 4-4 in two seasons against Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Syracuse, beating the Orange twice (after losing to them in 2012) and the Cavaliers and the Hokies once each.

Narduzzi, on the other hand, is 12-4 against those teams; his four losses have been Virginia Tech in 2016 and 2017, Syracuse in 2017 and Georgia Tech in 2017. He has never lost to Virginia.

And the other thing I notice is that there have been quite a few close games in the series between Pitt and those four teams. 13 one-score games, to be exact, out of 24 total games; that’s more than half, and it actually includes every game Pitt played against Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Syracuse in the 2015 season.

The Panthers won every single one of those one-score games in 2015 - Narduzzi’s debut season - and have generally been better in the close ones. Pitt has a 9-4 record in one-score games against those four teams, and Narduzzi himself has gone 7-3.

Of course, this all says nothing of Duke and North Carolina, the other two winnable games on Pitt’s schedule every year. The Panthers have done well against Duke (5-1 in the conference) and not so well against UNC (0-6). Those games are pretty important, too, but given Pitt’s success against Duke - which is similar to the success against Virginia, but the games against the Cavs have been closer - and the complete lack of success against UNC, I feel like the UVA/VT/GT/SYR games are much more of toss-ups, and thus have a greater potential to determine the course of the season.

The important one
Something brief but important here...

Thursday was a big day for the nation, of course, but it was also a big day for Pitt because July 4 is not just the birthday of the old U.S. of A., but it's also the birthday of one Bob Junko.

There better not be anyone out there right now asking who Bob Junko is.

The man is, without hyperbole, an institution of Pitt football.

Junko has spent the last 22 years as part of the Pitt football program. He joined Walt Harris' first staff as defensive tackles coach and transitioned into an administrative role early in Dave Wannstedt's tenure.

Wannstedt saw Junko's value. So did Todd Graham, Paul Chryst and Pat Narduzzi. I assume Michael Haywood would have, too, because to devalue Junko would be utter foolishness.

Junko has been one of the bedrocks of Pitt football through all the transition of the last decade. When multiple coaching changes seemed to be on the verge of truly wrecking the program, Junko (as well as Chris LaSala) was behind the scenes holding things together. His official title is director of player development and high school relations, but a guy like Junko is above titles.

He helps out all over the place and everybody in western Pa. knows him. He's got a story for every occasion, and if you haven't had the opportunity to be in his company, you're missing out.

There isn't much more to say than that. Other than maybe Junko's most quoted phrase, the motto that Pat Narduzzi has him offer to every recruit at Pitt's prospect camps:

"Never get too high. Never get too low. Just keep sawing that wood."

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

What about that big hole in the class?
Switching to recruiting for a minute…

We mentioned last week that Pitt’s 2020 recruiting class is coming together quite nicely, but there are still a couple holes in the group despite having 16 commitments. Namely, those holes are at quarterback, offensive line and tight end. The Panthers only have one commitment on the line and none at quarterback or tight end, and all of that will need to be addressed between now and December (or, failing that deadline, February, which would be less than ideal).

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the quarterback position and recruiting that spot, and I’ve been wondering if a change in strategy is taking place or is about to take place. Because we’ve seen in the last year or two that the game is changing for quarterbacks.

More and more, guys are cutting and running if they aren’t starting by Year Two or Year Three (sometimes earlier). I’m not going to criticize the players who make the decision to transfer; it’s a business decision for them and they make it with their own best interests in mind. That’s fine. I know coaches like to go down the road of talking about paying your dues and biding your time and waiting your turn and all of that, but just like players decide to transfer with their best interests in mind, so too do coaches want players to not transfer due to their own best interests. So I’m not going to echo those thoughts here.

What’s interesting to me is how the increasing rate of transfers among quarterbacks is changing or could change the business of recruiting quarterbacks.

According to various reports around the Internet, there was somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 or so undergraduate quarterbacks who entered the transfer portal this offseason. That’s 30 guys with multiple years of eligibility heading out into the world looking for a new home.

If you’re a college coach, you can’t ignore that. Some will only glance at the list because their roster is fairly set with quarterbacks, but the vast majority of coaching staffs in Division I will take a close look because it would be foolish not to.

Like it or not, transferring is on its way to becoming part of the path FBS quarterbacks take. Maybe not for the majority, but for a significant percentage. And if a significant percentage of FBS quarterbacks are going to transfer, then college coaches have to take that into account and adjust their approaches accordingly.

Which brings us back to Pitt and the 2020 class. Right now, the Panthers really don’t seem to be in good shape with any quarterback targets. Mark Whipple has offered a couple prospects since arriving in January, but there’s really nothing doing on that front. The spring evaluations in May didn’t produce much and neither did the prospect camps in June, and while we keep hearing that the staff is monitoring a few targets, nothing has emerged to this point.

I imagine that Whipple and his staff will keep an eye on a number of quarterbacks through the fall in case someone really breaks out as a senior, but right now I could realistically see Pitt finishing the 2020 class without a quarterback.

Two years ago, I would have said that idea is crazy, but as transfers become more prevalent, high school recruiting is having to share the spotlight; it’s no longer the only way to add quarterbacks to your roster.

There’s also the matter of grad transfers. About 20 quarterbacks in each of the last two years have graduated and transferred, providing (ideally) an instant one-year solution at the position. That’s a great option to fill in any gaps you may have in recruiting.

Did you miss on recruiting quarterbacks in a given year? That’s not the end of the world. If you like the kid you got the year before you missed and you like the kid you got the year after you missed, you can feel confident that there will be a grad transfer available if you need someone to fill in the missing year.

You hate to rely on that, but if you have around 20 quarterbacks graduating and transferring every year, that’s a pretty large pond to fish from when you need to fill out the roster.

I guess the point here is that the landscape of recruiting quarterbacks has changed. It’s no longer just about high school or JUCO kids; no you also have to - you also get to - take into account transfers, of both the undergraduate and graduate varieties. Those are part of the process now.

What happened to the class of 2014?
For the last few summers, we’ve been running a series called “Revisionist History.” No, I didn’t intentionally cop that from the great Malcolm Gladwell, although you should certainly seek out his podcast of the same name.

Rather, it’s a series looking back at recent recruiting classes with the benefit of hindsight. Specifically, we look at how the class was ranked - how each individual prospect in the class was ranked - and then re-rank them based on what they actually did at Pitt.

I try to be fair with the sample size and cut off the re-rankings with players who are entering their third years on campus, instead focusing on the players who will be redshirt juniors, seniors or redshirt seniors or those who finished their eligibility in the most recent season (the most ideal sample size of all).

And it was that last group that we started with in the series this summer: the recruiting class of 2014. 2018 was the final year of eligibility for those players, so we’ve seen all that they have to offer and we can make a fairly comprehensive judgment on what their careers turned out to be.

So what did we find out when we looked back at that class of 2014?

Well…it wasn’t pretty.

Pitt signed 23 recruits in that class, which turned out to be Paul Chryst’s final recruiting class with the Panthers. Of the 23, 12 actually finished their eligibility at Pitt (or, in the case of one player, left early for the NFL), so that’s a positive, even if 50% seems like a modest goal. But it looks even worse if you consider the production of the 12 who did stick it out.

Of those 12, just six were multi-year starters. Even if you want to make a case that Rori Blair should count because he started 10 games in 2015 and eight in 2016, that’s still only seven multi-year starters from an entire class.

A class of 23 produced seven multi-year starters.

We might as well throw in the guys who started one year, and we’ll even include Quintin Wirginis, who started half of a season last year before he got hurt. That puts the number of full-time starters from the class at…11.

Out of 23.

Less than half.

That’s not a good number.

Now, there were some really good players in the class. Brian O’Neill, Qadree Ollison, Avonte Maddox (who history has smiled upon), Alex Bookser, Elijah Zeise - they were all part of the class. Plus Shane Roy started two seasons at nose tackle and Connor Dintino and Mike Herndon stepped in as starters on the offensive line during their redshirt senior years. And Dennis Briggs was a two-year captain - the first since Aaron Donald.

But there were a lot of guys who just didn’t do anything. Guys who were counted on from that class and never contributed. Guys like Mike Grimm, who never played, or Chris James and Adonis Jennings, who transferred before they ever really made an impact. The quarterback of the class, Adam Bertke, didn’t even start at the University of Findlay, the Division II school he transferred to.

And a whole host of projects who seemed to have upside never came into their potential - at Pitt or anywhere else.

Narduzzi inherited those guys when he got to Pitt. Those guys were second-year players in 2015, so Narduzzi had to view them as the group that would make up the foundation of his second, third and fourth-year teams. He also ended up having to recruit over a lot of those guys.

JUST ONE MORE THING

Playing with numbers
One topic that generated some conversation on the message board this week came by of Las Vegas, as Caesar’s Palace released its over/under win totals for the 2019 ACC regular season on Tuesday. Naturally, the attention went directly to Pitt’s number, which was 5.5.

I’m like a lot of you who saw that and immediately thought, geez that seems low.

I’m also like a lot of you who saw that and immediately thought, geez that seems like an easy bet to assume the over will hit.

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that Caesar’s has made an empire of money from people who saw what they believed was an “easy bet.” That’s kind of the point, and there’s a pretty solid gambling strategy to be built from simply betting against the public’s assumption that Vegas somehow made a mistake.

Look for those instances where the public is very heavy on one side of a betting line and go the other way; in my very amateur research, that’s an approach that pays off at a pretty high rate.

So if others in college football look at the over/under of 5.5 and think the same thing you and I think, is there going to be a rush to put money on the over and get 5.5 before it moves to 6 or 6.5? Quite frankly, there probably should be, because I’d be really surprised if this team does worse than .500 in the regular season.

Let’s look at the schedule. I know Pitt fans can sometimes be scared of their own shadows and see every game as a potential loss, but I think it’s pretty hard to find seven games where I would say a loss is even as much as 35% likely.

Yes, I know Ohio can be a dangerous MAC team, but Pitt should not lose that game. Same with Delaware. That’s two wins and we only need to find four more. Georgia Tech and Duke should be in that category. Now you only need two wins from the group of Syracuse, Virginia Tech, North Carolina (I know, I know) and Boston College.

Virginia is a wild card to me, with so many elements that could go either way, so we’ll call that one even odds for now. But you can’t entirely rule out Pitt winning one or more against Penn State, Central Florida and Miami.

I do understand the concerns with Pitt in 2019. Last year, the Panthers had a one-dimensional offense that couldn’t do anything but run lost, and now they’re replacing their two workhorse running backs and four of their five offensive linemen with unproven players. They have a returning starter at quarterback who failed to top 2,000 passing yards despite playing 14 games. That’s not encouraging.

The defense should be solid, although I can’t argue with someone who still thinks that unit should try to get through a season without giving up 40+ points multiple times.

Personally, I am bullish on that side of the ball; I think the line will be as good at generating pressure as they have been since Narduzzi arrived, I think the linebackers will be faster and more athletic than they have been in years and I think the secondary has experience and talent, which is a nice combination. And I’m choosing to buy into everything everybody in the South Side is saying about the impact Mark Whipple will have on Pickett, in particular, and the passing game as a whole.

That’s based on nothing but idle conversations, but there does seem to be a fair amount of confidence that the passing game will improve this season. It couldn’t actually be worse, right?

So I’m skeptical of that 5.5 number. The guys at Caesar’s get paid a lot of money to set a number that gets a lot of action, and they seem to have done that. I’m just not sure if that number will pay off for them.

Here’s what the rest of the Coastal looks like:

Miami - 8.5
Virginia Tech - 8
Virginia - 7.5
Pitt - 5.5
Duke - 5.5
North Carolina - 5
Georgia Tech - 4

As for Pitt’s other two ACC opponents, Syracuse is at 7.5 and Boston College is at 6.5.