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Tim Benz: Greg Gattuso believes in Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt prediction

September 23, 2018

Pitt assistant head coach Greg Gattuso during the Panthers’ practice at the UPMC Sports Complex on the South Side. Gattuso for fumble story. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi says his Panthers are going to the ACC championship game. I’ll bet everything I’ve got in my wallet against that.

For the record, that’s all of $60 and a Walnut Grill gift card right now. There is an ATM around the corner if you want to give me a minute, though.

However, the ACC Coastal division looks so weak they could win it and stumble into the title game.

Miami and Virginia Tech are the only ranked teams this year in the AP Preseason Top 25. The Hurricanes and Hokies were also the lone teams in the Coastal to boast plus-.500 records in both the conference and overall in 2017.

The Panthers play all of those other divisional schools this year: Duke, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia. They were a combined 26-35 last fall. Pitt’s crossover conference games are Syracuse and Wake Forest. Those two are picked as the worst teams in the Atlantic Division preseason poll.

So if the Panthers manage to at least split their contests against Va. Tech and Miami, and go 5 of 6 elsewhere in the conference, they could wander their way to Charlotte and make their coach look like a genius.

That wouldn’t mean Pitt would be all that good, mind you. They’d just win a lousy division. But it’s not entirely impossible.

The real test of how good Narduzzi’s Panthers are will be in their brutal nonconference schedule, which features Notre Dame, Penn State and Central Florida. All of those schools are ranked, and they combined to go 34-5 last year.

At least one opposing coach thinks Pitt has the fiber to fulfill that Narduzzi prediction.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get into contention for the ACC Championship game,” Albany coach Greg Gattuso said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”

Gattuso’s Great Danes come to Heinz Field on Saturday for the season opener. So that may be a compliment in an effort to avoid bulletin-board material. But Gattuso -- Duquesne’s former head coach -- appeared sincere in his evaluation that Narduzzi’s assessment was more than bluster.

“You watch them play last year, they look good on tape. They certainly run well,” Gattuso said. “They have talent. He (Narduzzi) is right in those years where it takes you a little to get a foundation built. And I think Pitt has done a good job.”

Narduzzi is about to start his fourth year as the Panthers coach. Gattuso was with Pitt for six seasons as an assistant. So he knows the challenges present when trying to win there.

In his view, the Panthers may have found something that other previous Pitt teams didn’t possess: a quarterback like Kenny Pickett.

“Football is so much about the quarterback. I know everyone is super excited in Pittsburgh that they have a great young quarterback. It excites you. If you are going to make noise in your league, you better be good at quarterback, and I think they are,” Gattuso said.

The only thing proven about Pickett is the hype around him. When people such as teammate Tre Tipton predict him to win the Heisman, they are doing so strictly from a place of unfettered optimism because he won his only start.

But Gattuso seems to think there is fire behind the smoke, as he hopes will be the case with his own quarterback, Vincent Testaverde. He’s the son of someone who actually did win a Heisman: Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde.

This will be Testaverde’s only year of eligibility at Albany after multiple transfers from Miami and Texas Tech.

“I wish we had Warren Sapp junior at nose tackle, too,” joked Gattuso, regarding another Hurricane and NFL alum.

If you look at Miami’s roster, though, there is another Blades, another Njoku, another Irvin. Just some of the raw talent Miami has every year. The ‘Canes’ presence in the division -- despite a loss to Pitt last year -- is just one of the reasons why it’ll be so hard for the Panthers to back up their coach’s big talk.

Here is where I’d like to say: “But stranger things have happened.”

And to Pitt, they have. Like when they’ve barely beaten Youngstown State in the season opener two of the last three years. Or when they lost to the Penguins to open 2012.

Gattuso’s Danes may not be of that FCS ilk. They are coming off a 4-7 effort in 2017. But Narduzzi’s players are best served to avoid a pitfall against them before looking at hotel reservations for Dec. 1 in Charlotte.

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