The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday September 29th

ACC preview: Pittsburgh eyes Coastal crown behind elite rushing attack

In preparation for the North Carolina football team's season opener on Sept. 3, we've broken down everything you need to know about each team in the ACC. Check out the rest of our previews here.

Coach: 

Pat Narduzzi (second year at Pitt) 

Record last year: 

8-5 (6-2 ACC) 

When do they play UNC? 

Sept. 24 in Chapel Hill 

Where are they projected? 

Third in Coastal Division 

How do they play?

A rough and tough ground game is the base of the offense. With a strong offensive line and a deep backfield, the Panthers will have one of the premier rushing attacks in the ACC. That being said, the passing attack will have to prove its worth to keep defenses honest.

On the other side of the ball, the Panthers has a defense that is growing in confidence. Although it was without any real star power last season, the unit impressed during Pittsburgh's 6-2 ACC run.

This might not be a problem this year, however, as several Panthers look ready to make the jump to stardom. Sophomore Jordan Whitehead should improve on a great first season, and his performance could be enough to take the defense to the next level. With another year under defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, Pittsburgh could make the leap from a solid defense to a great one. 

Who stands out?

Redshirt junior running back James Conner was forced to sit out in 2015 after a season-ending MCL tear in his right knee. He was then diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. 

Connor battled through winter workouts while going through chemotherapy treatments. But the running back announced he was cancer-free this May and hopes to be ready for the start of the season.

Connor was a star in his first two seasons with the Panthers, leading the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. In his sophomore season, Connor established himself as one of the best backs at the collegiate level, rushing for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns. 

This season, Connor is joined by a pair of impressive sophomore running backs in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Ollison held his own while Connor was out — rushing for a solid 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns — while Hall has made big strides this offseason and could earn the No. 2 running back behind Connor. With so much talent in the backfield, Pittsburgh’s rushing attack should be one of the best in the country. 

What is their biggest weakness?

Though senior quarterback Nathan Peterman is a returning starter, he is not known as a game-changing type of player. With the team boasting a strong running attack and a sturdy offensive line, Peterman's play could tip the scales for the Panthers. 

Another issue for the former Tennessee quarterback lies in the receiving corps, as star Tyler Boyd declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-2 standout finished his career as the all-time team leader in both receptions (254) and receiving yards (3,361) through just three seasons. Without Boyd, Peterman will be forced to spread the ball around this season to make up for his star receiver's absence. 

Why could they win the ACC?

The Panthers have the ability to grind out games, and their consistent style of play often keeps them in games until the final whistle.

Pittsburgh has a lot of the pieces to make a top team, including a dynamic rushing game and an emerging defense. While the passing game has its issues, Pittsburgh should be looked at as a serious contender for the Coastal crown.

@YonaDagalosi

sports@dailytarheel.com

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