Can Pittsburgh Win the ACC Coastal Division?

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Not often do I pay too much attention to predictions that have no analysis or explanation to go with them, but this particular post really caught my eye.

CBS Sports published an article featuring its experts and their top-to-bottom predicted order of finish for every conference, and while there are some interesting picks, college football columnist Jerry Hinnen’s ACC Coastal winner stands out the most.

Pittsburgh. He picked Pittsburgh.

Not Duke, which won the division last year and achieved its first 10-win season for the first time in school history. Not Virginia Tech, which has taken the Coastal five times since 2005. Not Miami (Fla.) or North Carolina, which both figure to have a spot in the first AP Top 25 Poll.

Pittsburgh has posted a 27-25 record over the last four seasons and averaged a sixth-place conference finish during that span – including finishing No. 6 in the Coastal its first year as a member of the ACC.

This is the team Hinnen projects to play Florida State (by a consensus) in the ACC Championship Game.

Believe it or not, there’s some validity to it.

There is so much potential on this young Panthers roster, starting with some serious weapons on offense. Receiver Tyler Boyd (1,174 yards, seven touchdowns) and running back James Connor (799 yards, eight touchdowns) were not only two of the best freshmen in the nation, but ended up being some of the best players at their position in the entire conference. Both will be key for sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik and his confidence and development early on.


However, nothing will matter unless the defense improves dramatically. Pittsburgh allowed 28.8 points per game against conference opponents in 2013, including 55 to Duke, 34 to North Carolina, and 41 to Miami.

There’s undoubtedly an abundance of  talent on this side of the ball with returnees such as defensive end Shakir Soto, tackle Darryl Render, and a solid group of linebackers. But with the loss of Aaron Donald as the anchor to the line, it’s going to take a heck of a performance from the front seven to prevent an incredibly thin secondary. There were basically three scholarship corners during spring ball, and albeit athletic enough, this is the position that was burnt for 11 plays of 40-plus yards last season.

Pittsburgh’s depth issues in the secondary means it must avoid the injury bug, or Voytik and the offense will be needing to score upwards of 30-40 points just to stay competitive.

That said, there’s an exceptional opportunity for the Panthers to get a running start and be full speed ahead by mid-season.

Taking a look at its back-loaded schedule, Pittsburgh could very well be 6-0 by October 16. Delaware, Boston College, FIU, and Akron should all be sure wins, and Iowa is a favorable home contest. Virginia could be a trap game at the time, but I’d expect Pitt to squeak away with the ‘dub.

Next comes Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh gets a few extra practices to prepare for the Hokies, who will likely continue to struggle on offense and have lost some key departures on what was one of the best defensive units in the country. This game comes on a Thursday and will be showcased by ESPN, meaning it will be a grand opportunity for Pitt to make some noise on a national stage.

Win.

Pittsburgh then welcomes Georgia Tech to Heinz Field. Paul Johnson made my Hot Seat Rankings earlier this summer, and the Yellow Jackets have averaged seven wins over the last four seasons. The outcome will heavily rely on the maturation of Johnson’s option attack, but I’m leaning toward the Panthers.

As you can see, it wouldn’t be impossible for Pittsburgh to win its first eight games of its 2014 campaign. It’s not 100 percent likely, but I can see how it could happen.

Nonetheless, a stretch of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Miami will determine whether the Panthers can win the ACC Coastal or not. Realistically, splitting the two by taking out Duke (they did last year, mind you) and Syracuse wouldn’t be a bad thing. Would it be enough to take the division? Possibly.

I’ll go back to the word that describes the 2014 edition of Pittsburgh football: potential. There’s a mold set in place for a 10-win season, and maybe more. But if things don’t go perfectly, six or seven wins might be the more rational plateau.

Either way, we’ll know what we’ve got by October.