football Edit

The 3-2-1 Column: Everyone is ranked, previewing Georgia Tech, and more

In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we are talking about an impressive week across the Pitt athletic department. We also preview Pitt’s football game with Georgia Tech on Saturday, and even shift gears and talk about the upcoming Pitt basketball team.

As always, there is plenty to talk about in the world of Pitt athletics.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Pitt has four ranked teams
On Sunday, the AP poll kept the Pitt football team in the national rankings as they checked in at No. 24 for this week. The Pitt volleyball came in at No. 10 on Monday, the 76th consecutive poll the Panthers found themselves ranked. Then on Tuesday of this week, the Pitt men’s soccer team earned the tenth spot in the US Coaches poll, while the women’s team made its season debut in the national rankings at No. 15 this week.

Pitt is only one of two schools in the country that can claim a national ranking in those four sports, the other being in-state rival Penn State.

It’s a pretty remarkable place to be for this athletic department and also a sign of growth for this university. Pitt’s change to the ACC from the Big East was a noticeable step up in competition when it made the move back in 2013. There were growing pains early on in Pitt’s ACC tenure, but after some initial struggles the school’s athletic department is starting to thrive in its ‘new’ league. Pitt is still behind a lot of its conference mates in terms of facilities, but the long term vision of Heather Lyke is hoping to improve that with the planned Victory Heights initiative.

We know all about the football team and what they accomplished last year and their goals for this season, But looking elsewhere, it is a very noteworthy thing for the Pitt’s women’s soccer program to be ranked. It was founded in 1996 and the Panthers have never made the NCAA Tournament. Under fifth year head coach Randy Waldrum, the program is off to a strong 10-1 start including a 3-0 mark in league play.

Volleyball has been the school’s best athletic team for some time now, with six straight NCAA Tournament appearances while having won the ACC three times during that span, and also made the national semifinals a year ago. It is a program with legitimate national championship aspirations.

The same could be said for men's soccer. Pitt has three straight NCAA Tournament berths and a College Cup appearance mixed in there. With a 5-2-1 start to this season, the Panthers under Jay Vidovich yet again look like a formidable team capable of making a deep run.

Look, football will always be the most popular fan sport at Pitt. It drives the athletic department in all facets, heck football even drives the majority of this website’s traffic, but it is significant to see other sports starting to come along and have success as well. There is still work to be done to improve winter and spring sports, but having four nationally competitive programs in the fall is nothing to diminish. Being ranked doesn’t mean championships, and there is a long way to go in seeing how these sports perform. For now, it’s a nice feather in the cap for Pitt.

Izzy Abanikanda is on a roll
Pitt junior tailback Israel Abanikanda has rushed for three straight 100-yard games, the first Panther to do that since Darrin Hall in 2017. On the season he has 479 yards and six rushing touchdowns. He is the ACC’s leading rusher, and is sixth nationally in that category. His seven total touchdowns is tied for the conference lead. Abanikanbda has 721 all-purpose yards, which again is first in the ACC and second in the country.

Needless to say, Izzy has been busy.

Pitt hasn’t had this kind of ground attack since 2018, when the Panthers had two 1,000 yard rushers in Hall and Qadree Ollison. Of course, Pitt leaned on Kenny Pickett and the passing game from 2019-2021 and the opportunities to have success on the ground were mostly limited.

The circumstances early on this season have led to this kind of chance in the running game. Pitt has already used three quarterbacks in meaningful game time, which has slowed the passing attack obviously, but has meant more volume of opportunities for the running backs.

It does not really matter how or why this newfound running game has come to the surface, all that really counts is that Pitt has a really good running back capable of producing at a high level.

Abanikanda did not quite make the high impact as some were hoping he would as a freshman in 2020. Last year he was the team’s leading rusher with 651 yards, but with a pass happy offense led by a Heisman candidate and also splitting carries with some other backs, his production was muted.

It’s different this year. Pitt has a viable No. 1 option at running back and he’s running with the opportunity. This is a different team than the 2021 version of the Panthers, they have to find new ways to get it done and they are through four games. Abanikanda is looking the part and the chance for a really special season is very much in play for the junior from Brooklyn.

The ACC is there for the taking…again
Pitt opens up conference play on Saturday against Georgia Tech with an 8:00 p.m. kick at Acrisure Stadium. The Yellow Jackets are a program in turmoil and are one of three power five teams to have already fire its head coach before the calendar has even flipped to October.

The thing is the other programs in the Coastal Division beyond Georgia Tech do not look to be in that much better of shape as everything stands today. Virginia Tech is with a first-year head coach and they have a loss to Old Dominion already. North Carolina has a pretty good offense, but they are giving up nearly 40 points per game. Miami has lost two straight games, including a two touchdown loss to Middle Tennessee State at home. Virginia is 2-2 and looks less dangerous on offense even with the return of Brennan Armstrong. And while Duke is off to a 3-1 start, they were picked to finish last in this whole mess for a reason.

Not exactly murderer’s row.

The Atlantic Division looks to be the tougher division in 2022, which is the final year the league is splitting its teams that way. That is nothing new, the Atlantic has historically been stronger with Clemson driving the ship. Syracuse looks to be a tougher opponent than originally thought, and Louisville could be tricky for Pitt because it is a road game. The four ranked teams in the division: Clemson, Florida State, NC State, and Wake Forest are all formidable, and Pitt would only have to face one of them…in Charlotte for the ACC Championship. That hypothetical is a long way off, but again this conference seems manageable from Pitt’s perspective.

Pitt has its own issues to be fair. In a division scattered with flawed teams, the Panthers are not without them. Most of Pitt’s main issues begin and end with injuries. The team getting healthy across the board would be the best thing that could happen for a chance to repeat as champions. Of course, many would like to see Kedon Slovis and the passing game start to pick up the pace, and the defense has been solid, but there is always room for improvement there.

I think the jury is still out for this Pitt team. The Non-conference slate did not really erase many of the questions we had about this team, and in some cases created more. Even with that in mind, Pitt seems to be the most stable and competent team in the ACC Coastal Division heading into conference play. Pitt’s early season issues sort of pale in comparison to its divisional peers. As a program that has not had a lot of sustained success through recent history, Pitt has a chance to capitalize for a second straight year, with a talented team and also a very winnable division.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

What can be expected from Georgia Tech?
We just talked about the concerns about each ACC Costal team at large, but it is time to zero in on Pitt’s first league game against Georgia Tech. It was not a shock that earlier this week head coach Geoff Collins was let go from his position. He was 10-28 at the time, and had never won back-to-back games during his tenure. Collins walked into a difficult situation, as he had to try to convert the roster from a triple-option team to a more conventional look. It was never expected to be easy, but as he got into his fourth season, there weren’t many signs of progress either.

Through four games, the Yellow Jackets own a 1-3 record. The lone win came against FCS program Western Carolina. In the three losses against FBS competition the Yellow Jackets were outscored 110-20 by Clemson, Ole Miss, and UCF. It was a difficult opening slate of games, but Georgia Tech was hardly competitive in any of them.

The offense has had trouble scoring to say the least. Quarterback Jeff Sims has been around for a few seasons, but he has never really taken a significant step forward as a player. He has thrown for 739 yards and two touchdowns this season, but has been sacked 13 times already. There is a young offensive line with all five starters either being sophomores or freshmen. They lack playmakers as well, with leading receiver Nate McCollum only averaging 8.8 yards per catch. Leading rusher Dontae Smith has 191 rushing yards on the year, with 102 of them coming against Western Carolina.

The defense has been equally as bad. The Yellow Jackets are 120th nationally in rushing defense as they surrender 209.5 yards per game, including 284 yards allowed to UCF last week. Georgia Tech is also allowing 31.8 points per game, which is good for 13th in the ACC. That doesn’t even count the special teams woes, as somehow the Yellow Jackets have allowed four blocked punts through four games.

So what to expect to Georgia Tech on Saturday? I would say not much, but in the same sense it is hard to tell. This is just not a good football team right now, but having said that, there is always the opportunity to rally around a new coaching staff.

Brent Key is the interim head coach, and also a Georgia Tech alum, so he’s not only coaching for the job, but also for the pride of his school. It will be tough for him to change the mindset of his players on the fly. Letting a coach in the middle of the season go can always be popular with the fanbase, but these guys were mostly recruited by Collins and they could be frustrated not getting the full season with him. Again, the mentality of the team is hard to put a read on when predicting a game, but the tangible results are not. Georgia Tech looks to be a mess right now on the field, and changing the head coach midweek doesn’t make it any prettier.

Can Pitt basketball turn the corner?
We’ve touched on the success of the fall sports already, but earlier this week the first official practice for winter sports got under way. The Pitt men’s basketball team held its first practice of the new season on Monday and head coach Jeff Capel and a few players met with the media to mark the occasion.

This is year five of the Jeff Capel era. He owns a 51-69 overall record, and Pitt has finished in the bottom five of the ACC standings in each of his first four seasons. Pitt as a program has not made the NCAA Tournament in six years, hell they haven’t had a winning record during the stretch either.

There was certainly some strife last offseason, as speculation around Capel status grew among the fanbase, and it even needed a Friday evening news dump from Heather Lyke saying his job was safe. It was a tumultuous time, but it was clear what they needed to do. He famously said after the team’s first round exit, “We have to get better players.”

That was the goal since the season ended in March, and in a few short months we’ll see if they did enough to bolster the roster to compete in the ACC. Pitt brought in seven new faces to the program this offseason in hopes of turning the tides of the program.

Now mind you, it seems almost every year Pitt has had to reshape the roster, but the approach this year at least looks better on paper that previous attempts.

When constructing this 2022-23 roster, Capel knew one thing for certain above all else: he had a really good big man in John Hugley. The Pitt junior center should be among the best post players in the ACC this season, so everything about the 2022-23 team should be centered around him.

Pitt also returned Jamarius Burton, Pitt’s second leading scorer from last season, as well as Nike Sibande, who missed last year but was expected to be a starter. Both are two veteran guards.

So what did Pitt do to augment that little three-man core? They added even more veteran guards, more outside shooting, and also some freshmen with upside.

I think in past seasons Pitt skimped on depth in the backcourt. Rather than have multiple outside shooting threats, the team was really only built to have a lead guard like a Xavier Johnson or a Femi Odukale, and would really only have one outside shooting threat like a Jared Wilson-Frame, or Ryan Murphy, or Ithiel Horton.

The roster for this season has what I think is a better approach, because there are now five guards that can all log significant minutes. Aside from Burton and Sibande, Pitt brought in Nelly Cummings, one of the better graduate transfer point guard options available. They added sharpshooter Greg Elliott from Marquette. And of course, Pitt landed a surprise commitment from top-50 recruit Dior Johnson, who comes into the program with high expectations.

Again, we’ve seen the roster take new form almost every season in Capel’s tenture. We have heard that the team is bonding and connecting with one another better than before, but at a certain point the results need to show it.

Given that the statement had to be made by Lyke following last season, this is really an important year for both Capel, but the program at large. They need to make something happen.

I still do not know what to make of this team overall. It looks to be a better roster than previous season, but I’ve been fooled before from this type of preseason hype.

Look, the markings for a successful Pitt basketball season are admittedly in a grey area right now. What are realistic expectations at this point? It’s hard to say. The main areas that need addressed are pretty clear, however.

Can they avoid the bad non-conference loss that has happened too often lately?

When the team has any run of success, can they sustain it and build off of it?

When they lose back-to-back games in February, can they avoid it from becoming a lengthy losing streak?

Those have all common themes from the past four seasons. Pitt has had bad non-conference losses. They have had big wins, only to falter shortly thereafter, and of course Pitt’s February record has not been much to speak of in recent years.

I don’t know if Pitt has to make the NCAA Tournament this year for it to be considered a successful season, but competing for a postseason berth has to be part of the plan. Pitt being involved in bubble talk late in the season would be a welcomed change in all honesty.

It has been far too long since this program has played a meaningful game in the months of February and March, at some point in order to keep this fanbase interested, that has to happen and I think it needs to occur this season.

I am bullish on this team because I do believe Hugley is really good and the additions addressed actual needs. But like most people, I need to see all those parts come together on the court. It has been a successful offseason, but we’ve been at this exact crossroads before with this program. Now it’s time to see if it can all work.

ONE PREDICTION

Kedon Slovis has three touchdown passes on Saturday
If you have been keeping tabs on this Pitt football team, one thins is for certain: this is not the same passing game as last season. I think considering the injury to Kedon Slovis and a lot of new players being asked to take on bigger roles have played into that. I think having a more successful running game than in previous years has all played a factor as well, and of course a new offensive coordinator makes a difference as well.

Everyone kind of seems to be waiting for the Pitt passing game to come along, and I think this is the week it can happen. I know the weather forecast for Saturday may suggest Pitt takes a strong rushing approach yet again behind Izzy Abanikanda, but at the same time I think the offense can start to let it rip so to speak.

Slovis has two touchdown passes this season, and my call is that he exceeds that total on Saturday alone with three scoring tosses. From the postgame on Saturday and throughout the week we’ve heard from Pat Narduzzi, Kedon Slovis, Tiquan Underwood, and Konata Mumpfield all say this passing game is capable of doing big things and that they are preaching patience, and I think we finally start to see it this weekend.

It is conference play now, as the Panthers will start its ACC title defense on Saturday against Georgia Tech. Narduzzi and his team have preached that these are the games that actually ‘matter’ to them, so with that line of thinking, I believe the training wheels come off the offensive play calling so to speak.

In the second half of the West Virginia game, and the first half against Tennessee, we saw a little bit of it. I believe Jared Wayne has a good chance to return to the lineup on Saturday and Slovis should have a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal.

Georgia Tech is a team that is reeling for sure, and also one that struggles to defend the run, but you’d have to imagine they know that’s what is coming. If the Yellow Jackets have any sense, objective No. 1 would be to slow down Abanikanda. With that in mind, I think Pitt ‘takes what the defense gives them’ and opens up the passing game on Saturday to the tune of three touchdown passes by its starting quarterback. The offense needs to prove it can beat you both ways, and I bet we start to see it against the Yellow Jackets.