Defining that "Next Level" Pitt Football Fans Keep Talking About



Earlier this week, I wrote an emotional article about how the Pitt Panthers should move on from head coach Pat Narduzzi.  I am not reversing my stance, but I am a man of integrity and I understand there are two sides to every discussion.  I am going to have some fun here and play devil's advocate against myself.

Very Few Top-Tier Programs

I find it interesting that a lot of Pitt fans, including myself, often say the Panthers need a new coach in order to, “get to that next level.”  How exactly is that ‘next level’ defined? 

College football is brutally difficult to surface above the average and become one of the elite programs in the country.  In fact, since the College Football Playoff (CFP) began at the end of the 2014 regular season, only 11 different programs have been selected to compete in the 28 total spots available. 

To save you a google search, these teams are Alabama (6), Clemson (6), Ohio State (4), Oklahoma (4), Notre Dame (2), Oregon (1), Florida State (1), Michigan State (1), Washington (1), Georgia (1), and LSU (1).  Additionally, only four different teams have won the National Championship since the establishment of the CFP: Alabama (3), Clemson (2), Ohio State (1), and LSU (1).

So if the ‘next level’ is being defined as making the College Football Playoffs or winning the National Championship, forget it.  It’s not happening.  Unless the College Football Playoff is greatly expanded, I do not foresee Pitt breaking into that elite class.  Sorry, I want to keep expectations realistic.

Perennial 10-Win Seasons

However, expectations can be high for the Pitt football program while not being National Championship high.  There is a lot of space to work with there.  So what is that happy medium?

As a Pitt fan, I crave a 10-win season.  When there is an opportunity to play 14 games in a season if you include the ACC Championship and a Bowl game, I think a 10-win season is a great goal to have.  However, if the ‘next level’ is perennial 10-win seasons, those expectations are as lofty as a playoff spot.

In 2019, the most recent full season, only 28 teams in all of Division 1-A finished with double digit wins.  Only 14 of those 28 schools were in Power 5 conferences.  Furthermore, only one ACC team, Clemson, finished with 10+ wins in 2019.  It is difficult to win 10 games, especially in a Power 5 conference, and to do it on a regular basis is rare.

ACC Contenders

So after tossing out dreams of the college football playoffs and perennial 10-win seasons, what do we have left but ACC play?  Look, this is a contrarian article about keeping expectations reasonable.  I know tossing goals in the trash is counterintuitive, but I’m playing devil’s advocate to support a point.  Plus, Pitt plays New Hampshire this weekend after a terrible home loss so I’m scraping for talking points. 

So I have now tempered our expectations to just being really good.  Great, another subjective term to define.  What is ‘really good’? 

I will set ‘really good’ at being in the running for the ACC Championship game every year.  This means the Panthers have a chance at winning the Coastal division as of their last ACC game of the year.   

I also believe 'really good' teams are not considered an automatic win when opponents are doing their preseason schedule predictions.  You know what I’m talking about.  Every year Pitt’s schedule comes out and we look at it and go, “that’s a win, that’s a win, there’s a loss, that one is a toss-up, etc.” 

According to the Pitt football website, from 2015-2020, (Narduzzi’s tenure) Pitt has 29 victories in ACC play.  This ranks them third in the conference behind just Clemson (46) and Miami (32). 

This proves to me two things.  Pitt is consistently competitive in the ACC and nobody is considering us an easy win.  Even Clemson cannot consider Pitt an easy win after the Panthers went into Death Valley in 2015 and handed them their only loss of the season.  Also, the aforementioned, Miami took a giant loss to Pitt in 2017 when a freshman Kenny Pickett led the Panthers to a 24-14 victory over the undefeated Hurricanes.  Pitt has been a giant killer since even before Narduzzi’s reign, but he has certainly carried on the tradition.

Additionally, while Narduzzi’s recruiting classes are typically ranked in the bottom of the ACC, I cannot downplay his ability to recruit players with NFL talent.  In 2021 alone, six Pitt players were drafted, which ranked them most out of any program in the ACC and tied for 8th nationally.  He continues to recruit great talent despite the team’s record.

So perhaps Narduzzi has stabilized the program and they are indeed at that next level.  They are competitive in their conference and are never an easy win for opponents. 

One Great Season

Here is the issue to all of these points.  If Narduzzi had that one 10-win season or one ACC conference championship win, he would be given the benefit of the doubt.  Or if he had won the Coastal more than once in his tenure, he'd have a longer leash from the fans.  It is very difficult to give Narduzzi the benefit of the doubt when he is consistently mediocre.  He needs a great season or two among the mediocrity. 

So I think we found ‘the next level’.  Pitt has established itself as a program that is never an easy win and will always be competitive in ACC games.  I guess now all we crave is a season or two every now and then that rises above the mediocrity.  This is something that still does elude Narduzzi and the Panthers.  Until he achieves a great season among mediocre ones, the benefit of the doubt is tough to gather.