Monday, January 7, 2019

Where is Pitt Football, and What is Their Ceiling?

For the last few years, it's obvious that Alabama and Clemson are way above the rest of the college football world. It won't always be like that since the main reason that's the case are head coaches Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney.  Before Saban, Mike Shula was 29-21 at Alabama, while at Clemson Tommy Bowden was 43-32 before Swinney.

When Saban and Swinney moves on to someplace else, and Alabama and Clemson come back to earth a little, there should be more parity. There's always the chance that another coach or two will dominate for awhile, but more likely the playoff race will be wide open.

But even when Alabama and Clemson do come back to earth, Pitt is far down the list of likely programs to make a four team playoff. At the very least, these programs are higher up on the ladder than Pitt is: Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, UCLA, USC, and Washington. That alone is 21 programs.

The second group includes Pitt, but also includes Arizona, Arizona State, Arkansas, Baylor, Boise State, Boston College, BYU, California, Central Florida, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Houston, Iowa, Kansas State, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Missouri, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Northwestern, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Purdue, South Carolina, South Florida, Syracuse, TCU, Texas Tech, Utah, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Washington State, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. That's 40 more programs, including Pitt. All of a sudden, there's 61 programs going for 4 playoff spots, and even the Top 25 is an accomplishment.

Then there's a third group, that with their current coach, are also contenders. Currently, that includes Army, Cincinnati, Duke, Fresno State, Iowa State, Navy, Memphis, and now with Les Miles maybe even Kansas. That's now 69 teams going for four playoff spots and 25 ranked spots. That means the chance of each of those teams making the playoffs is, theoretically, 5.8%, and the chance of making the Top 25 each year is 36.2%. And the chances for most teams to make the top 25 are even less than that since the top level programs will take up about half of the top 25 every year, including this year. If only 13 of the teams beyond that elite level make the top 25, the chances for a program like Pitt to make the Top 25 is now just 18.8%. And remember, that 18.8% is from only the programs that, theoretically, have a legitimate shot at all every year. This isn't including almost all of non-P5 programs, including every MAC team, which are capable of being in the top 25 some years.

We have to assume for various reasons that Pitt will never be in that top group of 21, so how do they get near the top of the second group? There are various criteria what makes a program, but for the sake of simplifying, I will concentrate on the three biggest factors- money, recruiting area, and the head coach.

With that in mind, the programs that spend big money, have the local recruiting area, and have a head coach that has currently shown that they can win with, are Baylor, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Stanford, TCU, and UCLA (I'm taking the liberty of giving Chip Kelly the benefit of the doubt here).

The programs that can definitely say that they meet two of the criteria, including what they are missing, are Arkansas (coaching), Duke (money), Central Florida (money), Houston (coaching), Iowa (recruiting), Kentucky (money), Mississippi (coaching), Mississippi State (coaching), North Carolina (money), North Carolina State (money), Northwestern (recruiting), South Carolina (coaching), South Florida (money), Virginia Tech (coaching), and Wisconsin (recruiting).

Not surprisingly, basketball schools like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, and North Carolina State could invest a lot more money in football if they didn't spend so much on basketball. Another thing to note is that those that are missing on coaching, like Arkansas, Houston, Mississippi State, and Virginia Tech could turn that into a positive as early as next season. They just haven't done it yet.

Those that have just one of the criteria, and what that one thing is, are Army (coaching), Boise State (coaching), California (recruiting), Cincinnati (coaching), Fresno State (coaching), Georgia Tech (recruiting), Iowa State (coaching), Kansas (coaching), Louisville (money), Maryland (recruiting), Memphis (coaching), Navy (coaching), Purdue (coaching), Syracuse (coaching), Texas Tech (recruiting), Utah (coaching), and Washington State (coaching). The interesting to thing to note here is just how much coaching can do for a program. Once schools like Iowa State, Syracuse, and Washington State no longer have their current coach, they will likely once again be a non-factor on the national scene because it's difficult to win to a large degree at these places.

That leaves the programs that can't say for sure that they have any of the criteria to a strong degree. Those schools are Arizona, Arizona State, Boston College, BYU, Colorado, Kansas State, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon State, Virginia, West Virginia, and... Pittsburgh.

Before anyone jumps off one of Pittsburgh's many bridges, that's not as dire as it sounds because while Pitt does not have any of those traits to a great degree, they do have all of them to a good degree. Let's look at all of them closer to see why I say that, and what it all means.

Money

Prior to the 2017 season, the AP ran a story that showed that Pitt was No. 40 in the country when it comes to football expenses. The expenses included coaching salaries, recruiting expenses, academic aid, and game guarantees. It does not include money that goes towards facilities, and money paid directly to coaches through multimedia partners. I can't speak to the latter, but like Pitt's No. 40 ranking, their facilities are generally considered good, not great, when compared to others.

According to spending finances done by the US Department of Education's Equity in Athletics Data Analysis, the recruiting expenses for all of Pitt's men's sports, between 2012-13 and 2016-2017, ranks No. 51 among P5 schools. Though it's for all men's sports, football is the biggest expense for men's sports at Pitt, so that number has to be considered low. By comparison, Virginia Tech was No. 38, and West Virginia was No. 40. While it's understandable that Pitt would not spend as much as large state universities that have more sports programs, they shouldn't be that far behind two relatively similar schools.

As for the salaries of head coaches, Pat Narduzzi made a reported 3 million dollars as of the 2016-2017 season. With a probable slight annual bump, we'll say that Narduzzi approximately made a total of 3.2 million a year this past season. That's a pretty decent salary for someone that has only been a head coach for four years, and has not finished in the top 25 yet. As far as how that compares to the head coaches in the rest of the country, that puts him at No. 42. But many of those coaches in front of him have more experience as a head coach.

It's interesting to note that in Paul Chryst's final year at Pitt, his third, he was making a total of 1.7 million. It appears that even when accounting for the continuing escalation of coaching salaries over the last four years, Pitt has stepped up it's game somewhat with Narduzzi's salary.

Ultimately, however, all of these numbers seem to point to the same thing, and that's that when it comes to expenses, Pitt is generally around No. 40 nationally, though the recruiting budget appears to be slightly lower than that.

Recruiting

Speaking of recruiting, the budget is something that can be improved. The talent level in the area, however, can not.

According to a Mike White article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in October, the WPIAL and City League had at least 31 FBS recruits between 1988-97, and in 1990 had as many as 50. This year there will probably about 20. But the number of recruits that are at a P5 level is even more dire. From 1988-1998, and average of 21.2 kids went to a P5 program. From 1999-2008, the number dropped to 17.7 kids. The number dropped again in the last ten years, in the span from 2009-18, with 14.4 a year. But for the current 2019 class, the bottom has completely fallen out with around six P5 kids.

If that wasn't bad enough, Pitt is located right in between two of the biggest and most powerful college football programs in the country in Penn State and Ohio State. Throw in Notre Dame, that appeals to a certain type of kid, and occasionally Michigan, Ohio State, and West Virginia, and what excellent prospects do come through the area, are lured away from Pitt. Of course, the competition is ultimately no excuse for losing the few top local kids that there are. Success will go a long way in getting the top kids to stay home, and as long as Pitt is not ending up in the top 25, it's understandable why kids with better options choose those options.

The staff has also done an inconsistent job recruiting locally. Top prospect MJ Devonshire, from previous pipeline school Aliquippa, was not even recruited heavily by Pitt until programs like Ohio State and West Virginia had long started. Pitt may still end up with him, but only because of a late flurry of attention.

Also, while there aren't a lot of elite prospects in the area now, in the last few years those prospects seem mostly ambivalent to the Panthers. Elite quarterback Phil Jurkovec could have changed a lot of things for the program, but he went to Notre Dame without Pitt ever really having a chance. Yes, he has an emotional attachment to the Fighting Irish, but when Pitt had excellent recruiters, and were highly successful on the field, few players of that stature got away.

Elite offensive lineman Andrew Kristofic, a high school teammate of Jurkovec, followed Jurkovec to Notre Dame this year. Joey Porter, Jr., son of the former Steelers linebacker, and recently fired linebacker coach of the Steelers, was lost to Penn State this year. Before that, other big misses included Josh Lugg, Lamont Wade, Kurt Hinish, CJ Thorpe, Donovan Jeter, Kenny Robinson, Kwantel Raines, Miles Sanders, Khaleke Hudson, Dravon Henry, Chase Winovich, and Malik Hooker.

Not all of the above happened under Narduzzi, and Pitt did get a few top prospects in this time period, too, but it shows how little most of the local top prospects care about staying home and playing for Pitt. The final destination of those top prospects were Penn State, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Michigan, and Ohio State. Other than West Virginia, those are elite programs, but you can't let even elite programs come in and take many of your best players if you want to be an excellent program yourself.

As for the overall recruiting class rankings, I will use Rivals since that seems to be the most common ratings cited. I won't use Narduzzi's first class, because that's a partial class that has to be cobbled together in the last minute. I am also going to use the prospect average ranking instead of the suspect formula that Rivals uses.

In Narduzzi's first full class, which was 2016, the Panthers finished tied with Wisconsin at No. 29, which is a very good ranking. So far, 13 of the 24 players in the class have contributed to a good degree, including Rashad Weaver, Damar Hamlin, Keyshon Camp, Amir Watts, and Maurice Ffrench. None can be considered big stars, at least yet, with the best being Weaver, who was ranked a 2-star prospect by Rivals.

In 2017, Narduzzi backed it up with another good class, on paper, when he tied Kentucky and Arkansas for No. 30. Included in that group were Paris Ford, Kenny Pickett, AJ Davis, Todd Sibley, Damarri Mathis, Jason Pinnock, Jaylen Twyman, and Cam Bright.

Last year, Pitt's class was tied with Utah, and again Wisconsin, at No. 35, which is still in the same general area as the previous two classes. With this group, Narduzzi added players such as Mychale Salahuddin, Shocky Jacques-Louis, V'lique Carter, Devin Danielson, Blake Zubovic, Jake Kradel, and John Morgan.

This year, Narduzzi's class is currently No. 34 through the first signing date, so he is right were he usually is. This year's standouts include Daniel Carter, Vincent Davis, and the most promising quarterback prospect in Narduzzi's tenure, Davis Beville.

Narduzzi's classes have been good enough for him to field a top 25 team. For some comparisons, Mike Leach's Washington State classes between 2015-17 finished No. 48, No. 61, and No. 53, and these are the classes that formed the team that finished 11-2 this year. In that same time span, Mark Stoops' classes at Kentucky were ranked No. 37, No. 34, and No. 31, virtually the same as Pitt, and this year they went 10-3. From 2013-15, Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State classes that formed the meat of his roster for his team that won 10 games three straight years, were ranked No. 42, No. 37, and No. 40. Pat Fitzgerald has been 15-3 in the Big 10 the last two years with his 2015-17 classes ranking No. 58, No. 40, and No. 45. Mark Dantonio's 2010-13 classes that helped him get to three straight top 6 rankings in the top 25, were ranked No. 36, No. 33, and No. 51. I could go on, but I'm sure even the biggest doubters get the point.

Despite letting too much excellent local talent get away, rare as it is, Narduzzi has shifted the focus to other areas, especially Florida, so ultimately he has done a pretty good job in recruiting considering he doesn't have a great local recruiting area, and hasn't finished with a big year. It would be interesting to see what he could do if he ever had a breakout year on the field.

Coaching

Both money and recruiting are obviously tied very much to recruiting. If you spend a lot of money on your program, you can get great coaching, and with great coaching you will have a lot of success on the field, and if you have success on the field, you will do better in recruiting.

So how well has Narduzzi done so far? Actually, pretty good. In his four years as the Panthers head coach, he won 8 games twice, 7 games once, an ACC Coastal championship, and has a 20-12 record in the ACC. He also nearly won at eventual No. 9 Iowa in 2015, beat eventual No. 7 Penn State, and national champion Clemson, in 2016, as well as almost winning at eventual No. 11 Oklahoma State in the same season. In 2017, even during his lone losing season, he won over then No. 2, and undefeated Miami, in the regular season finale. This season, the Panthers went to eventual playoff team Notre Dame, and gave them a scare. The only ACC schools that have more conference wins in Narduzzi's tenure have been Clemson and Miami, and Miami has only one more win than Pitt. I think if when it was announced that Pitt was going to the ACC, that fans were told that Pitt would have more wins in the ACC than all but Clemson and Miami, they would be pretty ecstatic.

That's not to say that he's been perfect. He needs to hire a better staff, including coordinators, though some assistants like Charlie Partridge, Andre Powell, Archie Collins, and Cory Sanders are especially good hires. He has yet to bring in a top offensive line coach, and employed mostly unproductive wide receiver coach, Kevin Sherman, for four years. Former defensive coordinator Josh Conklin came in looking like a real up and comer, but in his three years, the defense was poor. This year's past defensive coordinator, Randy Bates, seems like an uninspiring choice, as was recently fired offensive coordinator, Shawn Watson, who was retained after the offense did not do well in 2017. While Bates still has a chance to prove that he's a good coordinator, even though he's been a 58-year old journeyman for most of his career, Watson was a complete failure.

But Narduzzi's biggest problem in his first four years has been his defense, or the lack thereof. Despite a reputation over many years of being one of the best defensive minds in college football, his defenses, especially in 2016, when in his second year it probably cost him a 10-win season, have been below average. That may be changing, however, as Pitt will finish this season with the No. 59 total defense, after finishing No. 69 last year, and an abysmal No. 101 in 2016.

But maybe a little more alarming is that in his first year, with a defense filled with Paul Chryst's players, he had the No. 37 total defense. So going from No. 37 to No. 101 in his second year is a pretty startling drop, that is made even more frightening when considering that still two more years later, No. 59 is still the highest he's attained.

It should not take this long to turn around a defense, especially one that was better before you started turning it around. In Chryst's last year, Pitt's defense was ranked No. 33. So basically, Narduzzi took a team that had the No. 33 defense and still hasn't even got back to that mark after four years.

To show some comparisons of what should have been expected, the year before Luke Fickell arrived at Cincinnati they were No. 72 in total defense. In his first season, while getting his players and defense in order, they dropped to No. 94. Now, this year, in just his second season, the Bearcats defense is No. 11. So in Fickell's second year, he is No. 11, and Narduzzi is No. 101?

When Justin Wilcox took over at California, the defense he inherited was No. 125. In year one of his tenure, he improved the defense slightly to a still bad No. 95, but this year, Wilcox's second, California has the No. 16 defense.

Jeff Tedford took over a Fresno State defense that was No. 68 before he arrived. In his two seasons, they have finished No. 15, and No. 17. Prior to Bronco Mendenhall arriving at Virginia, they had the No. 79 total defense. In year one Virginia dropped to No. 93, but in year two his defense improved sharply to No. 40, then this year, Mendenhall's third, his defense is ranked No. 20.

These are just four cases of many over the years, and it brings to light just how much Narduzzi's defenses have inexplicably struggled at Pitt.

Developing players also needs to be improved. The reason that some coaches with lesser recruiting rankings than Narduzzi have better defenses is because they do a great job at developing players, something that Narduzzi and his staff have not done well enough, especially on defense.

In Narduzzi's four years, he still hasn't developed one of his own high school signees into a quality quarterback, the tight end position has been one disappointment after another, no offensive linemen have become all-star caliber yet, and only Maurice Ffrench has developed into a good wide receiver. He has even't developed an excellent running back yet, as James Conner, Qadree Ollison, Darrin Hall, and George Aston all came in under Chryst.  The excellent offensive team of 2016 was led by Chryst's recruits, and grad transfer Nathan Peterman. In the two years after Chryst's excellent offensive players left, Pitt has been No. 97 in total offense both years. That has to concern Pitt fans.

On defense, Narduzzi and his staff have obviously developed more than a few players, but after four years there still hasn't been anybody even approaching All-American caliber. And in another troubling sign, three members of the starting secondary  (Jordan Whitehead, Avonte Maddox, Ryan Lewis) for the 2016 team that was next to last in the country in pass defense, have proved that they're  good enough to be currently playing in the NFL.

Scheduling

This is an extra bonus to the three criteria that I started with, and as anyone that follows me on twitter sees me incessantly talking about it, it's an extremely important one.

Pitt can't always blame tough scheduling before Narduzzi, but since Narduzzi arrived, the athletic department aren't doing him any favors with their brutal scheduling.

In Narduzzi's first season, 2015, he was forced to play at Iowa, Notre Dame, and even at Akron, a MAC team. While there's no reason to believe that the athletic department could foresee the Hawkeyes going 12-2, and ending up No. 9 in the country, there's still no reason to play at a traditionally good team, that provides no recruiting benefit, in a season when you're already playing Notre Dame. And I should also note that while Notre Dame decides to play ACC teams starting in 2014, this game was already previously scheduled before that. So you already have two big time programs to play, and you also play at a Terry Bowden Akron team that went on to go 8-5.

The Panthers beat Akron, but lost to Notre Dame and Iowa in what became an 8-5 season. The breakout team in the ACC that year was North Carolina, who finished 11-3 and No. 15 in the country. Their out of conference schedule was a neutral site game against South Carolina, and North Carolina A&T, Illinois, and Delaware at home.  Both South Carolina and Illinois were coming off mediocre seasons, and would go on to 3-9 records in 2015. Let's say that North Carolina A&T and Youngstown State, who Pitt also played that season, cancel each other. And an 8-5 Akron team on the road, and a 3-9 Illinois team at home cancel each other. That means the remaining two opponents are at Iowa, and Notre Dame at home, for Pitt, and for North Carolina a 3-9 South Carolina game at a neutral site, and Delaware. Change those two out of conference schedules and Pitt is easily a 10-3 team and in the top 20 at the end of Narduzzi's first year. Recruiting would have received a great boost with such a successful first season.

In 2016, the Panthers had Villanova, Penn State, and Marshall at home, and Oklahoma State on the road. Penn State was in-state rival that the Pitt fans wanted to play badly, so that game takes precedence. But like Iowa, playing Oklahoma State on the road made zero sense for any reason. Especially when Villanova and Marshall were not your typical pushovers. Marshall ended up finishing 3-9, but they were 10-3 the season before. And Villanova was preseason No. 23 in the FCS rankings before ending the season at No. 13. Both are usually good lower level teams. Still, Penn State, Villanova, and Marshall are all acceptable in the same year, but then why throw in Oklahoma State on top of it? When I point these things out, there's always people that say there's no way for Pitt to know that Oklahoma State will be good in 2016. That's technically correct, but Pitt should also know that there's a good chance that Oklahoma State will be good because when they scheduled the game Oklahoma State was 7-1 and No. 15 in the country at the time. If you switch out Oklahoma State for a more reasonable opponent, Pitt is 9-4 and in the top 25, just a year after being in the top 20. And the great momentum of the first two seasons would have continued.

Even the poor 5-7 season of 2017 could be saved somewhat. Home games against Villanova and Rice are good choices, and away at Penn State is understandable, but again they had to play an excellent Oklahoma State for no reason. Switch that game out with a more reasonable opponent, and Pitt is 6-6 and at least going to a bowl game.

This year, the Panthers scraped out a 7-7 record against a brutal out of conference schedule that included Penn State at home, and Notre Dame and UCF on the road. The Panthers scheduled the Penn State series in 2011, and Notre Dame was scheduled in 2014. The ACC does not have a set schedule for Notre Dame to play their required five ACC games a year, so as long as everyone gets scheduled, it's up to Notre Dame and each school when to schedule. So Pitt did have an option to not play this game in this year when Penn State was already scheduled. But, when you get a chance to schedule Notre Dame, you take it. I get it. But then why with two elite programs already scheduled do you then also schedule UCF?

I've heard a million times that Pitt could never known that they would be a top 10 team where they scheduled them, and while that's true, they would have to be braindead to not know that they would be good during that year, and certainly good enough to not want to play on the road when you are already playing Notre Dame and Penn State.

Pitt scheduled UCF in January of 2017, right after Scott Frost took over an 0-12 season and turned them into a 6-7 bowl team in his first year. UCF was 31-9 in the three years before that 0-12 season, and Frost was one of the hottest coaches in the country at the time. National predictions had UCF winning 7 or 8 games and being second in the American Conference in the season when Pitt scheduled them. So at the very least, when Pitt scheduled them, UCF had a hot new coach that took a winless team to 6 wins right away, and was predicted to win 8 the following season. I don't know about you, but that's not a team that I want to play, on the road, for what I think is my third toughest out of conference team on the my schedule. At the very least, and this is is even giving Pitt the benefit of the doubt that you just play Notre Dame when you can, they should have played someone easier than UCF, and should have done so at home. That gives Pitt an 8-6 team this year that won the ACC Coastal championship. It's only one game but it's such a difference that when I ran a poll on twitter in early December asking if Pitt fans would think an 8-6 season would be considered a success, 89% said yes. When I asked if they would consider a 7-7 season a success, only 41% said yes. That one extra unnecessary tough game made a very big difference in the perception of this season, not only for the Pitt fans, but for national football observers and potential recruits. And perception matters.

Another thing I hear sometimes on twitter is when a fan says that they don't want to make the schedule easy just to get wins. But Pitt wouldn't be making it easy, they'd be making it normal. If Pitt hasn't had the most brutal out of conference schedule in the country in Narduzzi's four seasons, I'd like to know who has. Don't believe me? In the last four years, Pitt has played eight teams in their out of conference schedule that either finished in the top 15, or are currently in the top 15. Two a year, every year. Do you know how many Penn State played in that time? Zero. Do you know how many West Virginia played in that time? Zero. In the ACC, Virginia Tech played one in this time, in 2015. North Carolina has played zero. Syracuse has played zero. North Carolina State has played zero. Most programs played either 0 or 1 out of conference top 15 teams in the the country during the last four seasons. Not eight.

And it looks like Pitt hasn't learned their lesson yet because there's still some potentially troubling out of conference scheduling ahead. Next year, Pitt plays Penn State and UCF again, so their streak of two a year may continue for the fifth time in Narduzzi's five years. The 2020 year is the kind of schedule that Pitt should be playing, with Notre Dame, Miami (OH), and Richmond at home, and Marshall on the road. But they've added Tennessee for 2021 and 2022, with the 2022 season also including West Virginia. The 2023 season  inexplicably has both Notre Dame and West Virginia on the road, and in 2025 they have both Notre Dame and West Virginia again.

Ideally, Pitt should schedule one of Penn State, West Virginia, and Notre Dame a season. It doesn't look like Penn State will be back on the schedule any time in the near future, and Notre Dame will make periodical appearances because of the ACC deal. In years that Pitt doesn't play Notre Dame, they should play West Virginia. And if West Virginia and Pitt don't make a deal to play more often, then substitute another P5 program, but one that's not expected to be a national power, and could also help in recruiting. Schools like Maryland, Rutgers, Kentucky, Mississippi, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, or TCU. One game should be an easy opener, like Albany this season. The other two should be non-P5 programs that could also preferably help in recruiting. Those would include MAC teams, as well as Florida Atlantic, FIU, Army, Navy, UAB, Cincinnati, UConn, Marshall, Southern Miss, Temple, and Tulane.

So the typical season would have Pitt playing either Notre Dame, West Virginia, or someone like Maryland, an FCS school or very low FBS school to start the season, and someone like Florida Atlantic and Temple to round it out. If Pitt played, for example, Albany, West Virginia, and Florida Atlantic at home, and Temple on the road, plus went 6-2 in the ACC like they have already done twice in four years, you're looking at Pitt suddenly being 10-2, or at the very least, 9-3. And all they have to do is schedule like everyone else does. Fans can save their protestations that they'd rather play better teams. Nobody else does it, and if Pitt went 9-3 or 10-2 in the regular season, the fans would forget about playing tougher teams awfully fast, or at least until New Years Day.

Summary

So what does this all mean? Well, it means Pitt is not a great program, but they certainly are a good program. And even more importantly, they could easily become a very good program with just some improvement in certain areas.

Better scheduling alone would make the Panthers much more successful. All that praise for Syracuse going 10-3 and possibly ending up in the top 15 this year would be for Pitt if they scheduled like Syracuse did this year. Syracuse's three out of conference games this season were Western Michigan, UConn, and Wagner. That's the difference between 7-7 like Pitt, and 10-3 and in the top 15 like Syracuse. Ask Syracuse fans how they feel about that weak schedule, and I guarantee you they don't care. They only care about being 10-3 and in the top 15.

As for the rest, the money can still be improved, especially for the recruiting budget, as well as hiring assistant coaches. And even for a head coach when that situation inevitably arises again. Pitt fares okay in these areas, but they should care enough to do even more.

And as far as coaching, while Narduzzi has done a good job, especially with an athletic department that has done him no favors as far as scheduling, he also can do better. The offensive coordinator job will be a crucial hire, and even the wide receiver coach will be important.

But most importantly for Narduzzi is that he finally gets his defense to where it should be for a supposed defensive wiz, and to develop the players that he brought in himself. The last of Chryst's players are gone, and they were responsible for almost all of what success Pitt has had on offense. When Narduzzi arrived, he was given James Conner, Ollison, Hall, and Aston at running back. So far, no running backs Narduzzi brought in have produced anywhere near what that group has. At wide receiver he was given Tyler Boyd, as well as Quadree Henderson. No wide receiver brought in by Narduzzi has been as good yet. The tight ends when Narduzzi arrived were JP Holtz and Scott Orndoff. Narduzzi's tight ends have disappeared at an alarming rate. The offensive line when Narduzzi arrived featured eight starters that are no longer on the team, including Adam Bisnowaty, Dorian Johnson, Alex Bookser, and Brian O'Neill. Next year, the starting line, as of now, will feature former walk-on Jimmy Morrissey, and this year's backup guard, Bryce Hargrove.

The above info is scary in black and white, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the bottom will fall out. A new wide receivers coach, and especially an offensive coordinator, if they are the right hires, could be a huge plus for the offense. And now that Narduzzi's offensive recruits are now in their prime as college players, and have none of Chryst's players in front of them, they could possibly become good players. Kenny Pickett was very disappointing this season, but with a new coordinator and a year of experience, he should be at least somewhat better. A slew of promising running backs have been waiting their turn, and now they will get it. Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack have the chance to be special at wide receiver, and Shocky Jacques-Louis and V'lique Carter are intriguing, to say the least. As for the offensive line, it's now time to see if players like Jerry Drake, Carter Warren, Gabe Houy, Brandon Ford, and Blake Zubovic can become quality players.

On defense, the line features Rashad Weaver, who has star potential, but Patrick Jones, Amir Watts, Keyshon Camp, and a handful of others also look like they could help improve the Panthers defense. Linebacker will undergo wholesale changes, and veterans like Saleem Brightwell, Cheyton Pine, and Elias Reynolds will have to lead the way, and young up and comers like Wendell Davis and Cam Bright have to live up to their potential. In the secondary, Damar Hamlin leads the way, but young players like Paris Ford, Jason Pinnock, and Damarri Mathis have to become good in a hurry.

At the end of the day, despite being hampered by bad scheduling, Narduzzi is going to have to win more than 8 games within the next two years, in my opinion, to keep his job. Six seasons without a top 25 finish seems about as far as Pitt could go with a coach before he has what they consider good enough success. With better scheduling, Narduzzi could already have a top 20 and a top 25 finish under his belt, as well as four bowl games in four years, but fair or not, that did not happen.

I have no doubt that the university would love to see Narduzzi succeed. He has the personality and the playing style that plays well in Pittsburgh, and he just seems very Pittsburgh. But nobody seemed more Pittsburgh than Dave Wannstedt, and he was let go after six seasons. And that included a top 15 finish and a 26-12 overall record the last three seasons.

After year six, Narduzzi would have four years left on his extension, and there will be more than enough time to see if he can win with his own players. He has enough to succeed. He has enough money and he has enough recruiting to get Pitt into the top 20, especially in 2020 with a weaker out of conference schedule. Now he just has to actually do it, because it's now or never.

Ideally, Narduzzi succeeds with his own players, and starts to get Pitt into the top 25, and maybe sometimes a little beyond, at least on an occasional basis, because programs at Pitt's level will not take being outside of the top 25 for long before they make a coaching change. A long career by Narduzzi, and maybe ten years down the line passing it off to his right hand man, is the best case scenario. In these next two years we will see if that best case scenario will happen.

And if it doesn't, Pitt will be back to the drawing board looking for another coach. And if they do, maybe they will learn from Narduzzi's demise by spending more money and scheduling better. Because Pitt has been in that just good, but not excellent limbo of 7 or 8 wins and just missing the top 25 for too long, especially when they have it in their power to be better than that.













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