Ask Mark: Can Pitt win the Coastal?

ESPN.com columnist Mark Schlabach is stopping by the ACC blog this week to answer some of your most pressing questions about the league as it enters the 2014 season. You can tweet your questions to Mark here.

Mark: At first glance, you wouldn’t think Pitt’s second season in the ACC will go much better than its first, when the Panthers finished 7-6 and narrowly defeated Bowling Green 30-27 in the Little Caesar’s Bowl.

The Panthers lost All-American defensive lineman Aaron Donald, along with two other starters on the defensive line. Only five starters are back on defense. Quarterback Tom Savage also is gone, leaving a gaping hole under center.

But coach Paul Chryst is slowly building an ACC Coastal Division contender, and the Panthers might even be a sleeper in the division this season. Pitt plays seven home games and doesn’t play Clemson, Florida State, Louisville or Notre Dame in 2014.

Two of its road games are at Florida International and Virginia, two teams that struggled mightily a year ago, and the Panthers get a bye week before playing at North Carolina on Nov. 15. They also play at Boston College and at Miami in the Nov. 29 regular-season finale.

There’s no shortage of proven playmakers on offense. Pittsburgh has a really nice one-two punch at running back with James Conner (799 yards with eight touchdowns in 2014) and Isaac Bennett (797 yards with seven touchdowns). Tyler Boyd was one of the country’s top freshman receivers last season, with 85 catches for 1,174 yards with seven scores. Pitt will have to find a No. 2 receiver to take pressure off him after losing Devin Street to the NFL draft.

Sophomore Chad Voytik, who is much more mobile than his predecessor, will probably win the starting quarterback job. Pitt brings back four starters on the offensive line, but they have to do a much better job in pass protection after ranking 118th in sacks allowed among FBS teams last season.

If Pitt can run the football better, protect the quarterback and create more turnovers on defense, I think the Panthers could be one of the bigger surprises in the ACC in 2014. Pitt’s schedule certainly gives it a chance to get off to a very good start.