The first season for a new head coach usually has enough veterans to eek out a decent, or even good season. In the second and third season, however, those veterans start to depart, along with any other veterans that aren't in the plans, and who have to be replaced by the players that the new head coach brings in. The problem with that is that those players are too young and inexperienced to fill the gap. It's often not until year four that those talented young players turn into talented veteran players, and that's when most head coaches have their first breakout season.
Just to use some examples, Walt Harris took over Pitt and went 6-6. In seasons two and three he went 2-9 and 5-6. Then he won 7 or more games for the next five seasons. Mark Dantonio was 7-6 at Michigan State in his first year, went 9-4 his second year, then 6-7 in his third year. That's a 22-17 record in the first three seasons. In his fourth year he went 11-2.
Dabo Swinney had a head start as an interim coach at Clemson, and actually coached seven games before his first full season. He still ended up going 6-7 in his second full season before turning it around and getting double digit wins the next six years. He was a combined 19-15 in his interim season and first two full seasons.
There are many other examples. Charlie Strong was 7-6 in each of his first two seasons at Louisville. In season three he went 11-2. In Mike Gundy's first three seasons he went 4-7, 7-6, and 7-6. In season four he went 9-4 and didn't win double digit wins until season six. At Baylor, Art Briles went 4-8, 4-8, and 7-6 in the first three seasons before going 10-3 in season four. At Washington, Chris Petersen when 7-6 and 8-6 in his first two seasons before starting 9-0 this season. Mike Leach was 3-9, 6-7, and 3-9 in his firs three seasons at Washington State before going 9-4 in season four. At Tennessee, Butch Jones went 5-7 and 7-6 before breaking through to go 9-4 in season three. Even the great Nick Saban took time to turn around programs. At Michigan State he was 25-22-1 in the first four seasons. At LSU he lost 12 games in his first three seasons before being co-National Champion. Even at Alabama he went 7-6 in his first season.
Now looking at Pat Narduzzi, he went 8-5 in his first season and will probably be 5-5 after this weekend. The Panthers will be the favorite over Duke and Syracuse to end the regular season. For the same of argument, let's say they win those two since they've yet to lose a game in which they were favored (don't say Pitt won't win another game because it just makes you look crazy). That would make Pitt 7-5. With a bowl, the Panthers could be 7-6, which would be disappointing but still in line with many other coaches in their second year, or 8-5 which would make him 16-10 in his first two seasons. That would be a highly impressive first two years in a middle of a turnaround.
In year three Narduzzi could have a slight downturn since it will be his big gap year between Paul Chryst's players and his own players. Players like James Conner, Scott Orndoff, Adam Bisnowaty, Dorian Johnson, Tyrique Jarrett, and Ejuan Price will be gone and will have to be replaced by younger players. Those younger players are very talented, and if they're talented enough their lack of experience won't matter, but it definitely could. Either way, in year four, Thomas MacVittie will be starting for the second year, and the offense and defense will be loaded with talented starters brought in by Narduzzi. Players in their prime at that time will include Quadree Henderson, Tre Tipton, Aaron Mathews, Charles Reeves, Alex Bookser, Chawntez Moss, Todd Sibley, George Aston, Damar Hamlin, Keyshon Camp, Amir Watts, Henry Miller, Paris Ford, Therran Coleman, Rashad Weaver, Elijah Zeise, Phil Campbell, Bricen Garner, Kaezon Pugh, Chase Pine, Saleem Brightwell, Cam Bright, Jay Stocker, and Rashad Wheeler. Potential wildcards, who will still have eligibility but could leave early for the NFL, are Jordan Whitehead, Chris Clark, Dwayne Hendrix, and Brian O'Neill.
Looking more closely at this year, the offense has been much better than the defense, and when looking at the roster it's easy to understand why. Chryst recruited extremely well on offense but also recruited poorly on defense. Against Miami, the Panthers had two starters on defense that had at least five P5 offers coming out of high school- not surprisingly their two most decorated defensive players, Ejuan Price and Jordan Whitehead. Narduzzi brought in fourteen defensive players with at least five P5 offers just last year. Players like Watts, Camp, Pine, Pugh, Hamlin, just to name some, will be much better in Narduzzi's defense than those that were starting this year. Not only are they more talented than the players starting this year, but they were also brought in by Narduzzi specifically for his defense.
The current defensive line has been good, mostly because of Price, but a defensive line that has the likes of Hendrix, Watts, and Camp could be potentially outstanding. As for the linebacker and defensive back units, it's a fact that both have been way below par. The seniors in those two groups are Matt Galambos, Bam Bradley, Mike Caprara, Ryan Lewis, and Terrish Webb, and unfortunately all have been highly overmatched.
Quentin Wirginis will replace Galambos next year, and he'll be an upgrade. Pine and Pugh will be among those that should play a lot at linebacker as redshirt freshmen, and while both will be inexperienced they are both much more talented than their predecessors. Elijah Zeise will also be back from an injury, and he looked promising in camp this season. At defensive back, Hamlin will likely replace Lewis, and Stocker, Garner, and true freshman Paris Ford will replace Webb. Both positions are obviously huge upgrades.
When at Michigan State, Narduzzi stayed with his system and said to be patient until he got the players that fit it. In his third season for the Spartans, his pass defense finished 112th in the nation. In year four they finished 60th. In the next three years they finished 11th, 9th, and 3rd. In other words, having players like Hamlin, Ford, Coleman, etc. makes a big difference. You need the players.
Offense shouldn't regress either, especially if Matt Canada stays. Canada thinks MacVittie has NFL potential and at 6'5" and 230 pounds, with speed in the 4.5s, you can see why. Moss and Sibley will be dynamite at running back for the next three years and even Aston will be with the Panthers for the next two years. At wide receiver, Weah is back for another year, Henderson is back for two more years, and Tipton and Mathews are back for three more years. Their natural progression alone should make this unit a strength eventually, and that doesn't even include any players that haven't made their move yet. Tight end is a major strength with Clark and Reeves, and the OL still has Jaryd Jones-Smith and Officer back next year, Booker back for two more years, and O'Neill back for one or two years depending on if he goes early to the NFL after next year. Justin Morgan, Brandon Ford, Gabe Houy, Owen Drexel, and Carter Warren are the next group, and while it's still early they have a ton of upside. The cherry on top would be Thayer Mumford, who turns this very good group into an excellent group.
Bottom line, it usually takes about three or four years to turn a program into a big winner, and often there isn't much winning going on while that transition happens. The fact that Narduzzi is still winning most of his games despite his defense having very few players that are capable at the moment, is pretty impressive. But when we will really see Narduzzi flourish is when he has the players on defense that are much more talented. The offense started seven players against Miami that had at least five P5 offers, and that doesn't even include Conner, Weah, Aston, or O'Neill- four really good players. When the talent on defense matches the talent on offense, the Panthers will finally arrive.