Of course, there were some reasons for the Panthers' struggles. The team was playing shorthanded missing starters Alex Bookser and Jordan Whitehead, as well as linebacker Quintin Wirginis, due to suspensions. Pitt also ran seemingly as basic an offense as possible in an effort to not show their hand to Penn State. That strategy worked to perfection last year as the Nittany Lions were routinely caught off guard by what Pitt was doing after the Panthers also enjoyed a relatively easy victory against Villanova. But this year, it nearly cost them as they were forced to overtime by the Penguins. Pitt players admitted after the game that there was some easing up after a 21-0 lead against Youngstown State and that contributed to a game that was closer than expected.
While playing with those handicaps in the opening contest was ultimately overcome, Pitt, of course, will have their hands full with a top ten Penn State team that is expected to challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Gone is Nathan Peterman, who has played well in the preseason and could be the Buffalo Bills starter if Tyrod Taylor can't get over injury issues. Gone is James Conner, who will be playing at Heinz Field this year, but with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Also gone are other 2017 NFL Draft Picks Dorian Johnson, Ejuan Price, and Adam Bisnowaty. The Panthers' offense, too, has changed with the team losing coordinator Matt Canada in the offseason to LSU. Defensively, Pitt brings an almost entirely new defensive line to Happy Valley and also suffered some other personnel losses. And to make matters worse, in addition to losing other key contributors from last year, the Panthers are also still without Whitehead at safety, who has two more games to go on his suspension. You shouldn't need me to tell you that the Panthers team that defeated Penn State last year is markedly different from this one but there it is.
By contrast, the Nittany Lions team that Pitt faced early last year is different, too. The Panthers were fortunate to catch Penn State earlier in the season as the Nittany Lions improved as the year went along and wound up winning a Big Ten championship before losing in the Rose Bowl. Penn State's team is largely the same but a year older and a year better.
The Nittany Lions' offense is what should really concern Pitt fans. Running back Saquon Barkley is a legit a Heisman contender and he had 172 rushing yards in limited work against Akron. While he's the best player on the team, he may not even have the biggest day against the Panthers as the Pitt secondary proved they have much work to be done after giving up over 300 passing yards to Youngstown State. Quarterback Trace McSorely and his talented receivers could have an absolute field day against Pitt on Saturday. That's particularly true with the Whitehead loss as he's the best player in Pitt's shaky secondary.
The teams aren't only different as the environment will be as well. Pitt will take their show on the road and play in front of what should be a hostile environment after playing to a mostly pro-Pitt crowd last season. One good thing is that the Panthers did that last year when they traveled to Clemson and played extremely well, winning and becoming the only team to defeat the Tigers in their national championship season. But as stated above, the Panthers were just a different team last season.
Don't get me wrong, I fully expect them to do just that. But all of the pressure is on them and a loss to Pitt, while not ruining their season (as Clemson proved last year), would be an embarrassing thing to try to explain away to recruits and fans. If you're the Nittany Lions, this is a game you should and must win without question. Heck, even a close win would be considered a disappointment on some level since they will enter the game as such heavy favorites.
If there's one thing Pitt has going for them, they should be able to play looser. The Panthers won last year's game and shouldn't be facing anywhere near the pressure that Penn State has this season. Pitt has absolutely no reason to not throw everything out there and just play to win. Penn State will be doing the same, obviously, but Pitt has no reason to be tight and restricted in any way. Worst case scenario, you lose a game that many expected you to drop and you move on to another non-conference game before the ACC season begins. Get on the field, play your guts out, and make every play count.
None of that is to suggest Pitt has no shot here as bigger upsets have happened. The Panthers knocked off Clemson on the road last season and, in a heated rivalry game, shocked West Virginia in 2007 as they appeared to be headed to a national championship game. But if the Panthers are going to win, they'll need an incredibly strong performance, some turnovers, and probably a good bit of luck to pull off an upset here. Penn State has the better team and an added bit of motivation after losing last season's contest. And getting the game at home, there's little doubt as to why they are the big favorites going into this one.