The Weakest Link
It hasn't quite been the Big 2, Little 12, but over the past four years Clemson and FSU have registered a combined seven 10-win seasons, compared to three for the rest of the ACC, and an overall 90-18 record. It's been five years since a team other than Florida State or Clemson won the conference. As a result, those two schools get the most love from blue-chip recruits - in fact, they're splitting eight '15 five-star talents while the rest of the conference has one.
Pitt isn't about to start competing for five-star talent like the Tigers or Seminoles, but it's a lot further along than the Spartans were when Mark Dantonio and Narduzzi made it to East Lansing. The Panthers have three 'big' names: quarterback Chad Voytik (2,233 yards, 61.7%, 16-7 TD ratio), running back James Conner (1,765 yards, 5.9 ypc), and receiver Tyler Boyd (1,261 yards). They also have access to four-star talent, with 19 blue-chip recruits since the turn of the decade. And, they're in the Coastal division, which is deep (Georgia Tech, Duke, Virginia Tech, Miami) but wide open. Pitt doesn't have to worry about Clemson or the Noles quite yet, in other words.
At Dantonio's request, Pat left Michigan State's staff intact, instead pulling in assistants from around the country. He got an offensive line coach who served as Ohio State's recruiting coordinator from 2004-11. He lured Arkansas' offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney, who has experience coaching the NFL and coordinating in the SEC. He got the associate director of S&C at Notre Dame to lead Pitt's strength and conditioning. He hired a proven special teams coordinator.
On the defensive side, the hires are a little bit less proven, but Narduzzi will act as the maestro. He's bringing in the same defense Michigan State had in East Lansing: corners on an island, making teams one-dimensional by stopping the run. Both of those goals, as a matter of fact, could be within reach as soon as Year 1.
What Pitt's defense lacked most in 2014 was top-quality strength and conditioning and good gap control. Narduzzi, who cited conditioning as the main thing that led to his team's win over Baylor, will quickly be able to improve both of those areas. Depth will be a problem at several spots and youth will be a factor, as well.
But there's a lot to like with this group. The defensive line, especially, has some intriguing depth and size. The linebacker group has a few good men, while corner is a real reason for optimism. Avonte Maddox, a true freshman last year out of Detroit, is already a polished cover corner with starting experience. He could gain a little muscle, and lacks top-end speed, but rarely gets beat. The #1 '15 recruit in the state of Pennsylvania, Jordan Whitehead, also happens to be a Panthers commit and a cornerback. It's not a treasure trove, but Narduzzi will have the pieces he needs to work with to compete in his new division. That's good enough for Year 1.
The larger challenges, though, are in the big picture. Ohio State turned some heads when it won a championship with Ohio talent on its roster and an Ohio boy, Cardale Jones, leading the way. That talent just hasn't always stayed in the north, and the SEC was more than happy to pull some of its SEC speed out of places like New Jersey, Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. But schools in those states are catching up to the importance of recruiting and keeping those athletes home. Not only that, they can go down south and get interest from some southern players.
It helps when a coach is as media-savvy as Narduzzi, who's started a Twitter campaign (complete with the slogan, "On The Prowl") and also done the rounds on national TV. During the title game, Narduzzi was covering the action for ESPN. When Pitt played Houston in its bowl, Narduzzi joined the booth and talked about his vision for Pitt football.
Brash, aggressive, and downright James Franklin-like, Narduzzi will rustle plenty of feathers to get his team motivated and ready. But just like with James Franklin, or Jim Harbaugh, it's not all cockiness. When assembling his coaching staff, Narduzzi showed foresight when talking about future pitfalls that he wanted to avoid.
"Too often you see guys, (like) Charlie Strong in one year at Texas, he's already fired two guys and you look throughout the country and after one year, boom, they can be gone. That can't happen at Pitt .... Continuity has been a big thing for me at Michigan State and Cincinnati."
"One of the reasons Pitt was such an attractive job is because it's a job where assistant coaches can come and be happy as long as the head coach stays there.''
There will, of course, be failures along the way. Pitt has a long way to go, and a whole lot of effort, and belief, has to get invested before that changes. But Narduzzi is making Pitt a destination for hard-working talent. He'll make Pennsylvania a two-football-program state.
Hitting the Links Will Not Go Gentle
Elliott may have some of the necessary circumstances that Melvin Gordon lacked. A championship squad, prime-time opportunities, and a better offensive line. Three other Heisman contenders at QB doesn't hurt.
Offers by the Oklahoma Sooners and the Oakland Raiders were not enough for for Bobby Petrino's OC and DC to skip town, while the antipathized five-star juco commit, Devonte Fields, pledged his commitment to Louisville as well. Fields had been kicked off TCU for assaulting his girlfriend.
All eyes will be on the teams with the most talent, and the question marks they have. But there are also some intriguing questions about teams that have proven they can make top-5 teams out of less stacked recruiting classes. What will Oregon do at quarterback? Once upon a time, Mariota was a giant question mark, and so was Darron Thomas before him. Michigan State is as much offense now as defense, but what will they have in their secondary? Will Art Briles find a similar replacement for Bryce Petty, who graduates with 8,000 yards over the last two years?
Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond are both leaving MSU's No Fly Zone. Safety Montae Nicholson has been called one of the best athletes to ever play in a Mark Dantonio secondary, and there's also a pair of four-stars DBs coming to campus next fall. With that said, Hicks will need to make some more improvements at corner, and there aren't any proven entities behind him.
Damien Wilson was one of the best middle linebackers in the Big Ten, and he was one of three 240-pounders clogging up Minnesota's interior. Everett Wilson and Cody Poock will be a couple of lithe 230-pounders competing for the job.
Iowa's best offensive weapons were pretty consistently under-utilized. I'm speaking about RB Jordan Canzeri, who admittedly had a fumbling problem, Tevaun Smith, Jake Duzey, and perhaps C.J. Beathard, who was pretty slippery for a tall quarterback against a fast defense like Tennessee.
UK loses a commitment. 4-star DE Jason Strowbridge flips to North Carolina— Steve Jones (@SteveJones_CJ) February 2, 2015
If you were counting, that's six decommitments for Kentucky now in eight days. Other big-name schools have managed to come in late and poach players at positions of need.
Baylor is developing a reputation as 'Wide Receiver U,' and Briles' offense does rely heavily on the vertical threat those receivers provide. Antwan Goodley's 830 yards this season was only third-best on the team and the tenth-best performance at Baylor in the last four seasons.
Boykin's speed is incredibly hard to defend, and the pass downfield at 0:22 is unbelievable. But his best traits are his instincts under pressure and willingness to do the little things. Realistically, he has to be seen as next year's frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy.
On defense, Charlie Strong's first recruiting class is terrific. But they needed a quarterback, and between Zach Gentry leaving for UM and Kyler Murray reaffirming his pledge to Texas A&M, UT is short in a position of need.
Here are the top ten two-star athletes in the SEC this past year.
Robinson, by the way, was Florida's defensive backs coach and an ace recruiter who followed Muschamp to Auburn. Meanwhile, Florida is without a four-star recruit heading into Signing Day, and they have only 13 commits overall. Two of those are two-star defensive players.
SI has you covered, breaking down the biggest storylines for tomorrow.
Finally, if there was any doubt about how Pat Narduzzi felt about Michigan, here was his response to the Wolverines losing their basketball game to MSU.
"JUST LIKE FOOTBALL"— Pat Narduzzi (@CoachDuzzPittFB) February 1, 2015
Michigan is not scheduled to play Pitt any time soon. They face Michigan State on October 17th, in precisely 266 days.