Panther-lair - The 3-2-1 Column: College football changing, Jordan Addison, and more
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The 3-2-1 Column: College football changing, Jordan Addison, and more

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In this week’s 3-2-1 column we discuss the shift in college football that seems very imminent, and with the season approaching quickly we hit on some topics about the 2021 Pitt football team.


THREE THINGS WE KNOW

College football is going to take another big shift
We all saw the report on Twitter about Texas and Oklahoma inquiring about joining the SEC. Now I would venture to guess most of the audience for this week's 3-2-1 Column are Pitt fans, and that’s a bunch that certainly knows a lot about conference realignment. So I think we can all agree here, Texas and Oklahoma aren’t just inquiring about joining the SEC, those schools will be in the SEC at some point in the near future. It is a matter of when, not if.

When schools like Texas and Oklahoma are involved, when there’s SEC money involved, it’s not just smoke, it’s a full blown fire. This whole thing is going to be a done deal sooner rather than later.

So now what?

I think for starters we can take a look at what’s left of the Big 12 and kind of see some parallels to what happened with the old Big East. Once Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College left initially around 2004, the conference had one simple choice: add new members and fast. The Big East grabbed Louisville, South Florida, and Cincinnati, and the conference survived for a few years. In some respects, the league actually thrived for that short window. The Big 12 can probably do something similar and snatch up some combination of UCF, Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, and maybe a few more programs and press on with business as usual. BUT with Texas and Oklahoma leaving, you would have to think other programs in the league are starting to get anxious. Texas Tech and Baylor might try and call the Pac-12. Kansas and West Virginia would probably aim for the ACC.

So the Big 12 might not have that grace period with filler schools like the Big East, it might go full blown extinct right away. So where does that leave Pitt and the ACC? Well simply put, the power five may go down to a power four and Pitt’s still in the dance, so that's all that matters for now. The ACC may try to make come corresponding moves to keep up in the arm’s race with SEC and Big Ten. The league’s No. 1 pick will always be Notre Dame, and Jim Phillips discussed the program’s standing within the league at ACC media day this week.

The ACC could make some other moves, like adding West Virginia, or Cincinnati, or Kansas, or simply stand pat and wait out Notre Dame for as long as possible. It’s going to be interesting to see the trickle down effect of the Texas and Oklahoma move, but I think it’s fair to say we’re not waiting to see if this all happens, just waiting on when it goes down officially.

Pat Narduzzi likes his team
“But when you look at the quality of player we have. There's times in my first couple years, I'm looking out there like, Wow, okay? That's no disrespect to what we had. I think every year we get a little bit better. I think the quality of personnel that we have, I think our depth.”

That is a quote from Pat Narduzzi’s press conference at ACC Media Days. It was actually the first question to Narduzzi, as he was asked to assess where things stand with him and his pogram heading into year seven in Pittsburgh. Admittedly, that quote by Pitt’s head coach stuck out to me, because I think he believes it.

Every coach in the country ‘likes’ their team in July and August and is overly optimistic, it’s natural. That’s how every football team feels this time of year. Plus in a press conference setting there is also ‘coachspeak’ to sort of let the media hear what it wants to hear, but in this case, however, I do think Narduzzi likes where this team is from a depth and talent perspective. The way the team is constructed mirrors the identity he has as a football coach. Like he noted, those first couple years at Pitt he didn’t have always that, but now I do think he feels he has a roster of guys that fit his style as a coach.

Pitt has some talented, veteran linebackers to lead his attack-minded defense. Even with the loss of two All-American defensive ends to the NFL, that defensive line still has some serious talent and players that have played a lot of snaps prior to this season. The secondary has some experienced players, and it’s an area that Pitt has recruited heavily the past two years. Even offensively, I think Narduzzi feels extremely confident about Kenny Pickett and what he and the wide receivers can accomplish this year.

So, we’ll see. I’m not sure if this team goes out and wins 10 games or the ACC Coastal because Pat Narduzzi feels good about his team. I still think there are some concerns about this specific Pitt team, mainly most of those being on offense. I’m just saying, I think the quote or the sentiment was pretty genuine in that this is a team Narduzzi thinks can be successful.

Kenny Pickett is embracing the return
How about Kenny Pickett? Pitt’s fifth-year senior quarterback has already caused some waves with some of his NIL endorsement deals. His agreement with The Oaklander Hotel actually generated some national attention as his endorsement is to be able to take his offensive linemen out to dinner once a week. He might not be getting close to seven figures like Bryce Young of Alabama, but Pitt’s quarterback has some things working in his favor and will likely make a few dollars this season off his name, and frankly good for him. Not everyone on Pitt’s roster is as recognizable as Pickett and being a multi-year starter at the most important position obviously has a lot to do with it, but he’s embracing the moment and earning some money in his last season in college.

As for the football side of it, the running joke about his return at ACC Media Days is that he’s ‘been around forever’ or it’s his ‘15th season’ at Pitt, and I think he’s taken all that in stride as well. He believes he can help Pitt win this season, and I think he feels he can bolster his stock for next year’s NFL Draft as well.

“I think a lot went into it,” Pickett said of why he came back during ACC media days. “The draft projections, talk with my coaches, Coach Narduzzi, Coach Whipple, seeing the team coming back. I think there's an opportunity for this team to have a really special year. I’m right where I want to be. When I made the decision, I told myself I'd be all in on it. I'm all in on it and ready to go.”

Pickett knows he is the face of the team, he’s embracing the jokes about his long career, and he’s earning a few bucks because of it all. It’s still the offseason, but Pickett’s final (I think) year at Pitt is off to a strong start.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

What went wrong in the class of 2018?
Chris Peak has been reviewing some past Pitt recruiting classes as we claw our way through July getting ready for the start of fall camp. Looking at his last piece: Woof. That 2018 class has certainly not been one to write home about, and you have to ask why? The class was rated 36th in the country, and featured some talented prospects on paper, but in Chris’ ranking his top two picks were John Morgan and Habakkuk Baldonado, two talented defensive ends, but neither one of them has been a starter in their careers.

So why hasn’t this class panned out too much? I think first of all it starts with Pitt’s lone four-star signee that year: Mychale Salahuddin. He played sparingly as a freshman, had an offseason injury, and opted to transfer ahead of the 2019 season. So when you’re only four-star in a recruiting class dips before his second season, that obviously hurts and is where the problems start.

There have been some other notable transfers from that class. For one, V’lique Carter stands out, though he at least provided some production in his two years with the program. Ricky Town, Chase Brown, and Cam O’Neil also left the program without making much of an impact at Pitt.

The players that have stayed haven’t been total wastes by any means, but there really hasn’t been a standout performer yet either. Morgan and Baldonado could end up being really good players. Jake Kradel remains a starter on the offensive line, while Blake Zubovic could join him there eventually.

Devin Danielson, Tyler Bentley, Marquis Williams, and Erick Hallett have all contributed on defense, but nobody there has emerged as a star either. Shocky Jacques-Louis and Wendell Davis have always been promising players, but both have seemingly always been held back by injuries.

So what went wrong? I’m not sure. There were some missed evaluations I’m sure, some missed prospects back during the recruiting process, and sometimes we don’t always include this angle, but some players that just haven’t lived up to their own hype or ranking. It happens.

The book isn’t closed on this 2018 class just yet, because I do see a few starters for this upcoming season that could help change the tune, but for now it has been less than stellar to this point.

Can Pitt go undefeated in non-conference play?
I was on a podcast this week previewing Pitt football. I dropped a nugget of information that I’m sure you are all aware of, but it stunned the hosts. Pitt has never gone undefeated in non-conference play. Not one time. The program joined the Big East ahead of the 1991 season and has yet to go undefeated in out of league play in those previous 29 seasons. (Sorry, I can’t count 2020’s lone victory over Austin Peay of breaking that streak)

It is a weird fact, but hey it is one of those things that this program carries with it year after year. So can 2021 be the year the streak is snapped? On paper, it looks like this would be the year to do it. UMass is generally considered one of the bottom-5 programs and the entire FBS, and Pitt opens the season with the Minutemen at home. Pitt also plays host to Western Michigan, a good team out of the MAC, but not the odd’s on favorite to win that conference either. There is also a home game with New Hampshire, an FCS program that should net a victory.

Tennessee in Knoxville on September 11th.

That’s the one that probably creates the most concern. The Volunteers are coming off of a 3-win season and will be playing host to Pitt with a new head coach. Tennessee has a very tough home environment that could create problems for Pitt, with a crowd of over 100,000 potentially facing the Panthers. No matter how many coaching changes this program has been through since Phillip Fulmer, the program recruits at a top-25 level year after year.

Tennessee is not a great team, but there’s still talent and it’s still a road game for Pitt in what could be a tough environment. I think Pitt has a veteran team that can probably handle both of those factors and still win the game. So is this the year it happens and Pitt goes undefeated in non-conference play? Maybe. It looks like four winnable games, or at least three winnable games with a relatively tough challenge thrown in there.

ONE PREDICTION

Jordan Addison takes the next step
Pitt wide receiver Jordan Addison was pretty spectacular as a freshman. He was a freshman All-American after catching 60 passes for 666 yards and four touchdowns. His 60 receptions were tops among freshman wide receivers in the country. It was clear from the first game of the season that Addison was going to be Kenny Pickett’s favorite target in 2020. He made some dazzling catches, had some some impressive individual games, and put his name on the map for years to come.

Addison was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list earlier this week. The award is given out to the top receiver in the country, and I think there’s a good chance Addison makes a case to be one of the best in the country if he stays healthy. The sophomore from Maryland wasn’t always perfect last year. He did drop some passes and some games his production dipped. In some cases his production fell off because of the attention he received, and it allowed guys like DJ Turner to thrive in one one one situations.

Going into year two, I think Addison cleans up some of the inconsistencies of his game and only gets better. He should have a better understanding how to deal with double coverages, and having a fifth-year quarterback should only help in that regard. I don’t know if Addison will lead the ACC in all the major receiving categories in 2021, but I won’t be surprised if he does. Pitt likes to throw the football and he’ll have every opportunity to exceed his stats from a year ago and will have a chance to be Pitt’s first 1,000-yard wide receiver since Tyler Boyd did it as a sophomore back in 2014.