Pittsburgh is changing coaches again, but this change comes after Paul Chryst brought stability to a program that was in desperate need of a defined direction. Before Chryst's calming presence at Pittsburgh, it was unlikely that the Panthers could have lured a coveted coaching candidate such as Pat Narduzzi. The former Michigan State coordinator should do wonders for the defense, and the offense is in great shape with reigning ACC Player of the Year James Conner, Tyler Boyd and Chad Voytik.
Best-case scenario: The Panthers are a popular dark horse to represent the Coastal Division in the ACC championship game. Conner (running back) and Boyd (receiver) are among the best players nationally at their respective positions, and Voytik's second-half numbers at QB last season stand in stark contrast to his first six starts. That dynamic offense will give the defense leeway as Narduzzi puts his stamp on the unit. In a chaotic Coastal, the Panthers have a legitimate opportunity to win the division.
Worst-case scenario: For all the talent the Panthers have on offense, the defense was still susceptible to lapses at times. The transition under Narduzzi might be tougher than originally believed, and a strong offense might struggle to overcome the positions the defense puts them in. Offensively, Voytik needs to continue maturing and not suffer, which could be tough with five road games among the Panthers' first seven overall. The schedule also includes road games at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech plus a visit from Notre Dame. It could be another 6-6 season for the Panthers.
Most important player: That title belongs to Conner, and deservedly so. The bruising junior rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. And for those who think he's nothing more than a pounder, Conner had four runs of at least 40 yards, two that traveled at least 50, and a long of 75. The offense is run through Conner, and he is the key to keeping the defense rested and at peak performance, too. The Panthers' ability to control the clock through Conner will benefit a defense that's still learning. What is remarkable about Conner is how healthy he has been through his two seasons at Pitt. He has played in all but one game in his career.
Breakout player: Sophomore Rori Blair did himself no favors with an offseason DUI arrest and subsequent suspension for the season opener. However, the undersized defensive end is the program's best pass-rusher -- he led the team with five sacks last season -- and should benefit from Narduzzi's attacking defensive style. The new Pitt coach needs Blair to keep gaining weight, but that will come with time. For now, Blair is a third-down threat who should make quarterbacks uncomfortable deep in the pocket. He could record 10 sacks this season.
Most important game: The Panthers travel to Virginia Tech on Oct. 3, and it will be an early litmus test. The Hokies were not very good last season, but there is a favorable projection for them this year considering all they return. If Pitt can go into Blacksburg and leave with a win, it could set the pace for the rest of the season. Two weeks later Pitt is at Georgia Tech, and back-to-back wins against Virginia Tech and Virginia would have Pitt confident. The Panthers could be 5-0 going into Georgia Tech.
Class of 2015 signee to watch: Jordan Whitehead is the highest-ranked recruit in the Panthers' 2015 class, and he has the ability and versatility to impact winning at defensive back and on special teams. Whitehead will likely begin his career at safety, which provides an easier and earlier path to get on the field. -- Gerry Hamilton
Class of 2016 storyline: The Panthers already have a signal-caller committed in Thomas MacVittie, so the most important position is covered. The focus of the Panthers' 2016 class now turns to how many of the best prospects can Pittsburgh keep home in the Keystone State. ESPN 300 cornerback Damar Hamlin, linebacker Khaleke Hudson and receiver Aaron Mathews are at the top of that list, and their recruitments are in the balance. -- GH