For the second season in a row, Tennessee’s first test of the season will come against the Pittsburgh Panthers. The Volunteers will return the favor, travelling to Pitt for the second game of the Johnny Majors Classic series. Heinz Field will play host, and ABC will carry the coverage with kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. ET on September 10th.
Pittsburgh is coming off of a fantastic 2021, going 11-3 overall and capturing the ACC crown. It was a bit of a perfect storm for the Panthers, who enjoyed one final year of quarterback Kenny Pickett while Clemson had a big down year. Now Pickett has moved on to the NFL, where he came off of the board in the first round. Star receiver Jordan Addison has also moved on, hitting the portal to transfer to USC.
Replacing those two massively important players will define Pitt’s 2022. With West Virginia and Tennessee up in the first two weeks, they don’t have much time to figure it out either.
Head Coach: Pat Narduzzi
2021 Record: 11-3
2021 Result vs. Tennessee: W (41-34)
2022 S&P+ (Projected): 19th
Key Losses: QB Kenny Pickett, WR Jordan Addison, OC Mark Whipple, CB Damarri Mathis
Key Additions: QB Kedon Slovis, OC Frank Cignetti Jr., WR Konata Mumpfield
After three seasons with USC — each getting progressively worse than the last — Slovis comes east to land in a nice spot with the Panthers. Slovis failed to build on a big freshman season at USC, regressing in 2020 and eventually getting replaced by Jaxson Dart in 2021. For Pitt, they’re hoping to get the 2019 version — the one that threw for 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Making things tougher on Slovis is the exit of stud receiver Jordan Addison, along with three other contributors in Taysir Mack, Shocky Jacques-Louis and Melquise Stovall. It’s nearly an entire clean slate for the receiving room, meaning chemistry is starting at ground zero this offseason.
Jared Wayne, a 6-3 senior, will provide at least some stability coming off of a 600+ yard season. Pitt will also add Konata Memphfield from Akron, who was an All-MAC performer last season as a true freshman.
There is good news, however. All five starters on the offensive line will be back which is great news for incoming offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. Three of the five were All-ACC selections one season ago, and Pitt’s top three running backs from last year will return as well. Cignetti is expected to shift to a more run-first approach, which makes sense considering what the roster lost from 2021.
Defensively, Pitt should be solid as usual under Narduzzi. His unit fell to 38th in total defense last season, but didn’t lose much from last year’s unit. Pass rusher Habakkuk Baldonado (9 sacks) and defensive tackle Calijah Kancey (7 sacks) return and will provide Narduzzi with plenty of ability to generate pressure.
The Panthers will get most of their secondary back, but must improve on what turned out to be a pretty leaking 2021 season. Pitt ranked near the bottom in pass defense and lost a starting cornerback to the NFL Draft. Facing Hendon Hooker and Cedric Tillman will be a massive early test for this unit.
Though Pittsburgh pretty clearly has some big shoes to fill, don’t think they’re going to fall off the map. Narduzzi has this program stabilized, though they may take a small step backwards in 2022. Their season comes down to a pretty simple question — what will Kedon Slovis give them? And can the veteran offensive line and new offensive system prop him up enough early on to let him find his footing?
Tennessee is a small favorite in the early gambling markets, somewhere around three points depending on where you look. That line seems fair considering that the game is in Pittsburgh. The Volunteers will have a firepower advantage here, but don’t sleep on the Panthers.