To get an idea of how Pitt and Syracuse could do in Year 1 in the ACC, forget the quarterback uncertainty gripping both schools and instead focus on defense.
If Pitt and Syracuse had played in the ACC last season, both schools would have ranked in the top half of the league in the four major defensive statistical categories -- total defense, rushing defense, passing defense, and scoring defense. Pitt would have been No. 2 in three of those categories (total D, passing D, scoring D).
While it is tough to compare the numbers across the leagues -- ACC defenses faced more prolific offenses than Big East defenses -- the numbers do carry some weight. Neither team is a lightweight on that side of the ball. Far from it. The former Big East has built a reputation for turning out some pretty solid defenses, and pretty solid defensive players. In the 2013 NFL draft, for example, 11 of the 19 players selected from the Big East played on defense. In 2012, both first-round picks from the Big East were defensive players.
Let's move on to this season, where the bigger challenge awaits. Pitt returns nine players from a defense that ranked in the Top 20 in the nation last season in total defense and passing defense. Though defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable is gone, coach Paul Chryst promoted Matt House to take over, allowing for consistency and continuity. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald has appeared on four watch lists already (Bednarik, Outland, Nagurski, Lombardi). Lafayette Pitts and K'Waun Williams are a great tandem at cornerback.
As for Syracuse, coach Scott Shafer comes from the defensive side of the ball. His ability to get results out of that defense was one of the big reasons he was promoted to head coach. His game plans last year against Louisville and West Virginia -- two of the best offenses Syracuse faced all year -- were outstanding. The Orange do have a bigger rebuilding job than the Panthers, and are much thinner up front. They return six starters. Two -- linebackers Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis -- have 59 starts between them.
How these two teams end up doing is a guess at this point. But if they continue to play solidly on defense, the have a great chance of surprising a lot of people.