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Pitt’s nonconference schedule ranked toughest in Power 5

August 23, 2018

Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke speaks to the football team before practice Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Stefano Millin spent the past four seasons at Kent State, where his teams lost 37 of 47 games.

Included in those defeats were blowouts the past two seasons to Power 5 schools Clemson (56-3), Louisville (42-3), Penn State (33-13) and Alabama (48-0).

“We would get into our conference play and be down to the third-string quarterback,” he said. “Guys were getting hurt. It was just killing our morale.”

Nothing wrong with some good competition (and the ensuing pay days that come with it), but Kent State has been one of the lower-tier Mid-American Conference schools. Perhaps its scheduling was a bit ambitious.

Now, Millin is at Pitt, starting at left tackle for a team that believes it can get to the ACC championship game. The difference in Millin’s mind?

“The stakes are a lot higher here,” he said. “Everybody is not only wanting to win but expecting to win. That’s from (athletic director) Heather Lyke on down. I don’t know anybody on the board of trustees here, but I’m sure it’s from that on down, too.”

But the schedule doesn’t clear a smooth path to a championship. ESPN.com ranked Pitt’s nonconference schedule the most difficult in the Power 5, calling the ranking “a no-brainer.” AthlonSports.com judged Pitt’s overall schedule the fourth toughest in the nation.

This Pitt season is only the sixth this century -- and the second in four years under coach Pat Narduzzi -- with six road games (bowl games excluded). In former coach Todd Graham’s only season (2011), Pitt left home only four times.

But that’s not the toughest part.

Pitt plays five teams ranked in the coaches top 25: No. 8 Miami, No. 9 Penn State, No. 11 Notre Dame, No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 23 Central Florida. Only Penn State and Virginia Tech are at Heinz Field.

Pitt will get no sympathy from ACC Coastal rival Georgia Tech, which plays No. 2 Clemson and No. 4 Georgia, plus Virginia Tech, Miami and Louisville.

Central Florida of the American Athletic Conference is the outlier on Pitt’s schedule. UCF was the only undefeated FBS team last season, beating Auburn, 34-27, in the Peach Bowl. It returns quarterback McKenzie Milton, who threw for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns.

Despite a winless 2015 (0-12) and 6-7 record the following year, UCF has won 50 games over the past six seasons. Pitt beat UCF, 52-7, in 2006 in the schools’ only meeting, but it is no longer a rent-a-victim.

Former Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes said in 2016 that Pitt was trying to avoid scheduling non-Power 5 schools away from home. Then, a month after he accepted the job at Oregon State -- and two months before Lyke was hired -- Pitt announced a home-and-home series with UCF in January 2017.

Pitt plays UCF on Sept. 29 in the middle of its first of two four-game stretches with three road games. After starting the season at home with Albany, Penn State and Georgia Tech, the Panthers visit North Carolina and UCF on consecutive weeks, welcome Syracuse and then travel to South Bend for the first time since 2012.

Penn State and Notre Dame often were staples on Pitt’s schedule in the same year, but this season is the first since 1999 that both appear.

The season ends with a visit to Virginia on a Friday night (Nov. 2), followed by Virginia Tech at home and games at Wake Forest and Miami.

None of this matters to the players, by the way. Especially when they can point out Pitt has defeated a No. 2 team (Clemson and Miami) two years in a row.

Millin believes he finally is on a team that can handle difficult opponents, and his linemate, sophomore center Jimmy Morrissey, welcomes the challenge in the name of improving the Pitt brand.

“We don’t want to have a bad schedule,” Morrissey said. “If you don’t have a good schedule, you turn into a bunch of vagabonds practicing.”

Senior wide receiver Ra-Ra Araujo-Lopes said the schedule gives Pitt the opportunity to back up the optimistic talk that has spread throughout training camp.

“I think it’s the perfect schedule, to be honest,” he said. “If we want to go where we say we want to go, that’s the perfect schedule. That’s the schedule that we need to show the world who we really are.”

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