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Pittsburgh Panthers 2016 season preview

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Pitt RB Conner a full-go for Panthers (0:45)

Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi is thrilled to see James Conner back on the football field while Conner is just happy to be back to football. (0:45)

2015 record: 8-5 (6-2 ACC)

Pat Narduzzi’s debut as head coach was a success by almost any measure, as he took a team mired in a rut of four straight 6-6 regular seasons, made it tough defensively again and won eight games despite losing the reigning ACC player of the year in Week 1 to injury. Now the ante has been increased as Narduzzi enters Year 2 with the Panthers with expectations are as high as they have been in the Steel City in quite some time. The schedule should be more challenging as well, but with a strong core of upperclassmen and a better understanding of expectation under this regime, Pitt believes it has what it takes to compete for the ACC Coastal title this season — and perhaps even more.

Three storylines to watch:

Is this team an ACC title contender?

Pitt returns a strong group on its offensive line and on its defensive line. It has a returning starting quarterback, too. Those are all usually very, very good starting points, especially for a pro-style offense that is set on grinding defenses into submission. Narduzzi earned a two-year extension on top of his initial five-year agreement following his 2015 debut, and he brings back nearly his entire staff, with the exception being at offensive coordinator, where Matt Canada replaces Jim Chaney, who left for Georgia. The schedule this season presents a challenging nonconference slate, with games against Penn State, at Oklahoma State and against Marshall. And one of their Atlantic crossover games is a trip to defending ACC champion Clemson. Answers are certainly needed in the passing game after the departure of Tyler Boyd, and Pitt did drop its last two games of last season. Still, a division title is certainly within sight for the Panthers, and all it takes to win the league as a whole is one more victory after that, which should not be out of the realm of possibility if this team plays to its capability.

Is the front-seven up to speed?

Pitt rushed the passer much better last season than initially expected. The biggest reason for that — Ejuan Price — is back for a sixth year. But Price will have the added benefit of teaming up with another talented end this year in Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix, who was an ESPN 300 recruit in the class of 2014 and is finally eligible after being forced to sit last season.

It also helps that Pitt returns most of its production at linebacker in Matt Galambos, Mike Caprara and Bam Bradley, who are all fourth- or fifth-year players.

“He’s a good player,” defensive lineman Tyrique Jarrett said of Hendrix. “It’s a team sport. If he blows the guy up and I get penetration, then it’s an easy sack for me. That’s just what you need in a defensive line: people that are going to work together. Him and Ejuan — that’s a good combination. Me and Shakir [Soto] in the middle — that’s a good combination.”

What should we expect from James Conner and the backfield?

Is it fair to say that Pitt has the best stable of running backs in the nation? The Panthers are certainly in the running, as they return reigning ACC offensive rookie of the year Qadree Ollison, Rachid Ibrahim and Darrin Hall. Oh, and they also bring back 2014 league player of the year James Conner, and all he did this offseason was beat cancer.

Conner is seemingly back to full speed in the closing days before kickoff. It certainly helps the position group to be running behind arguably the best offensive line in the ACC, too.

“Anybody who gets a carry is going to do some great things with the ball,” Conner said. “It’s a very talented room. I feel like we have the most talented running back room in the nation. All of those guys run so hard and we just pick each other’s brains each day and compete. I’m excited for it.”