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Kevin Gorman: Pitt needs to turn Pat Narduzzi’s ACC prediction into prophecy

September 19, 2018

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi during practice Aug. 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Pat Narduzzi will be the first to tell you he isn’t a man to make guarantees, even if his previous prediction turned to prophecy.

But the Pitt football coach raised eyebrows when he told Panthers fans at a kickoff luncheon Friday at Heinz Field, “Next time we’ll see you (will be) in Charlotte for the ACC championship game because we’re going.”

If that sounds like false bravado for a coach coming off a 5-7 season, remember that Narduzzi told ESPN sideline reporter Allison Williams at halftime of the season finale that Pitt would beat Miami.

The Panthers beat the No. 2 Hurricanes a year after they beat No. 2 Clemson, handing the eventual national champion its only defeat. That begs the obvious question: If Pitt can beat the top two teams in the ACC, why can’t it win the Coastal Division and even the conference title?

“I think it helps you. When you’ve got the ability to win a big game, you’ve got the ability to win every game, period,” Narduzzi said. “If you can beat a Miami and you can beat a Clemson, why shouldn’t you win an ACC championship? That’s pretty simple. I think our kids understand that, and that probably plays a part of why they talk like they do. ”

Credit Narduzzi for saying something predecessors Dave Wannstedt wouldn’t, Paul Chryst couldn’t and Todd Graham shouldn’t, seeing as he drove off in the left lane, hammer down, after one season. It’s about setting goals. You don’t win an ACC championship by accident.

Narduzzi inherited a program that went 6-7, 6-7, 7-6 and 6-7 in the previous four seasons, so he realized right away Pitt wasn’t going to win any ACC titles without a change in culture.

“When I first got here, these guys just wanted to win six or more games,” Narduzzi said. “That was the goal. We had to change kind of how we thought. We had to talk about goal setting, doing big things, dreaming big. When I first got here, I was just trying to get them to say A-C-C. Forget the championship part at the end.

“But these guys here, if they believe it, I think we have the talent. I think we’ve got the mindset. I think we’ve got the chemistry to win a championship. Is that going to happen? We’ll find out.”

If it’s going to happen, Pitt has to overcome one of the nation’s toughest schedules. The Panthers open the season Saturday at Heinz Field against Albany, an FCS program, but will play five teams ranked in the AP preseason poll: No. 10 Penn State on Sept. 8, at No. 21 UCF on Sept. 29, at No. 12 Notre Dame on Oct. 13, against No. 20 Virginia Tech on Nov. 10 and at No. 8 Miami on Nov. 24.

Narduzzi didn’t make the schedule, but he made his prediction in spite of it. And the Panthers are buying into his belief.

“When you’ve got one of the toughest schedules in the country and you’ve got a football team that wants to and has a desire to win a championship, there is no pressure because they believe they’re there and they have the ability to do that. Is it stress? Is it pressure? Our guys are ready to play ball.”

Here’s the catch: The Panthers could lose to Penn State, UCF and Notre Dame and still have a shot at winning the Coastal Division title and playing in the ACC championship game.

It’s all about living up to what Narduzzi called the P-word: potential.

That starts with Pitt’s defense, which should be his best in four years. That’s not saying much, given how Pitt allowed 33 points to Penn State, 59 to Oklahoma State, 35 to Georgia Tech and N.C. State and 34 to North Carolina, which came to Heinz Field on Nov. 9 with one victory.

Narduzzi said nothing about a perfect season, which makes his prediction seem more reasonable. The Panthers don’t have to be perfect, Narduzzi quipped, unless their opponents are perfect -- which he said “probably won’t happen.”

But when I asked sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett what he would do for an encore after leading the Panthers to a 24-14 upset of Miami in his first collegiate start, he didn’t talk about beating No. 1.

Pickett talked about being No. 1.

That might be another P-word -- premature -- for Pitt, given Pickett is bound to have what Narduzzi called “hiccups” in his second season. But it’s not a bad thing to have a quarterback as cocksure as his coach.

“Nobody thinks he’s going to go out there and be Kenny Perfect,” Narduzzi said. “That would be a perfect world, but nobody’s perfect. I don’t want to make Kenny tight like that, where he’s got to play perfect. He’s still a baby.”

This talk of winning an ACC championship is still in its infancy, but it’s one that needs to continue if the Pitt football program is ever going to live up to its potential. Now, the Panthers have to turn their coach’s prediction into prophecy.

That would be just perfect.

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