British Open scores 2017: Jordan Spieth, Matt Kuchar, and Brooks Koepka lead after Day 1

Three Americans sit atop the Open Championship leaderboard at 5-under 65 after play Thursday.

At the end of the first day at Royal Birkdale, Americans Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, and Matt Kuchar are tied for the lead at the Open Championship, each at 5-under 65. Paul Casey and Charl Schwartzel follow a stroke behind.

Spieth entered the Open tabbed as co-favorite, along with U.S. Open winner Dustin Johnson. However Johnson had a rather uneventful round, following a birdie on the second hole with bogeys on the seventh and 14th to finish at 1-over 71, good for T58.

Ulsterman Rory McIlroy opened the day on a horrible note, bogeying five of his first six holes, but he finished up with four birdies on the back nine for 1-over, as well. He might have been helped by the, er, pep talk, by his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald.

On the sixth tee, Fitzgerald voiced what everyone else may have been thinking (via Golf Channel): “You’re Rory McIlroy, what the f— are you doing?”

Then again, McIlroy may have needed the reminder after missing his last two cuts and three of his last four.

It was Spieth, though, who put on a clinic. He finished the day without a bogey, sinking three birdies on the front nine and adding two more on the back. He hit 83 percent of his greens in regulation to make his day a bit easier.

Koepka made the turn at 1-over himself, birdied the 11th through 13th holes before finally recording a bogey on the 16th. He didn’t take long to make up for it, sinking an eagle on the 17th to get back to 5-under for the day.

Kutchar also put up a bogeyless first round in sharing the lead. He scorched the front nine for five under before putting up par on every hole after the turn.

Also of note was the round by Spaniard Jon Rahm. He shot 1-under 69, following the decision to rescind a two-stroke penalty he drew on the 17th hole when he adjusted a plant. Officials decided it did not affect his lie, so should therefore not constitute a rules violation. He, too, sits at T26.

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Chris Johnson is back with the Cardinals on a 1-year deal

Johnson’s not the burner he once was, but he revived his career with Arizona.

Chris Johnson’s claim to NFL Combine fame went down in flames this spring. His claim to NFL fame won’t be so easy to extinguish.

The veteran tailback will continue his professional career after re-signing with the Arizona Cardinals on a one-year deal. On Thursday, the team announced the signing, which was first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Johnson burst onto the NFL’s radar in the spring of 2008 by setting a combine record with a 4.24 second 40-yard dash. That speed was enough to assuage concerns about his ability to be a full-time tailback in the pros, leading the Titans to select him with the 24th pick of that year’s draft.

The East Carolina product immediately rewarded Tennessee’s faith. He ran for more than 1,200 yards his rookie year, then shattered that mark by breaking away for 2,006 more the following season. Johnson is one of only seven players in league history to break the 2,000-yard barrier.

His Titans tenure included four more 1,000-yard seasons, but it appeared his time as a featured back was winding down in 2013. Johnson averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in his final year with the club, raising questions about his viability as a No. 1 runner in the league. He signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Jets after being released by Tennessee but spent just one season as the team’s part-time starter before having his option declined for 2015.

That led him to Arizona, where a spot in the desert helped revive his career. He ran for more than 800 yards in ‘15 despite playing in only 11 games to help the Cardinals advance all the way to the NFC Championship Game. He was poised to capitalize on that performance in 2016, but a groin injury ended his season after only four games.

David Johnson, who had 1,239 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last year, will still be the team’s top back. But Chris Johnson will have an opportunity to make an impact in rotation.

He’ll work on a bounce-back season with the Cardinals, though he’ll have to prove Father Time wrong. Johnson will be 32 next season, making him one of the league’s oldest backs.

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Manchester United vs. Manchester City 2017: Start time, TV channel, live stream for ICC Manchester Derby

The Manchester rivals clash in Houston on Thursday.

Manchester United go head-to-head with their crosstown rivals Manchester City on Thursday, albeit on the other side of the planet. Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium are separated by just four miles in the northwest of England, though it’s Houston’s NRG Stadium that plays host to their encounter in the first round of the preseason International Champions Cup.

Neither José Mourinho nor Pep Guardiola are likely to be too bothered about the pre-season silverware, but they are certainly going to pay close attention to their sides’ respective performances. For both coaches, this game offers the first real test of their summer progress, and we can expect a competitive contest. It should be well worth tuning into.

Manchester United summer signing to watch: Romelu Lukaku

United’s shiny new striker, Romelu Lukaku, netted the winning goal as the Reds saw off Real Salt Lake in their last preseason friendly earlier in the week. It should be the first of many for the former Everton man, who was snatched by Mourinho from underneath Chelsea’s nose. Filling Zlatan Ibrahimović’s boots is no easy task, but the Belgian’s as likely to achieve it as anyone.

Manchester City summer signing to watch: Bernardo Silva

Perhaps not as headline-grabbing as some of the signings we’ve seen so far this summer, City’s capture of Bernardo Silva from Monaco is nevertheless one of the more intriguing deals to be done. The silky playmaker was outstanding as Monaco made a run to the Champions League semifinals last season and looks the ideal Guardiola player. Still only 22, he could go on to establish himself as one of the world’s best.

Compared to other friendlies, is this worth my time?

Yes. There’s no love lost between Mourinho and Guardiola, even when it comes to friendly matches. Both sides will be looking to show they’ve got the upper hand at this stage of preseason, and we get to see a smattering of new signings. As far as friendly matches go, this is a great one. 8/10.

Match date/time: Thursday, 10:05 p.m. ET, 9:05 p.m. local

Venue: NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas.

TV: ESPN (U.S. — English); ESPN Deportes (U.S. — Spanish); TLN (Canada); MUTV (U.K.).

Online: WatchESPN (U.S. — English); ESPN Deportes+ (U.S. — Spanish).

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NASCAR rumors: Hendrick Motorsports names Alex Bowman to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. for 2018

Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch are former Cup Series champions with a combined 90 wins and credentials of future first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famers. Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, and William Byron are three of the sport’s rising stars, possessing the kind of talent that owners covet.

These are six of the major players in what is shaping up to be a seismic Silly Season in which some of NASCAR’s most prominent teams will shuffle their driver lineups. Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Furniture Row Racing will each have at least one new addition to their rosters in 2018, with potential openings at Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske.

The first big domino was Dale Earnhardt Jr. announcing in April he would retire from full-time competition at the end of the current season, followed by Kenseth revealing July 7 he wouldn’t return to JGR in 2018. Last week, JGR announced Jones will join the organization to replace Kenseth and drive its No. 20 Toyota.

Kenseth’s availability prompted speculation he could replace Earnhardt at Hendrick, serving as bridge until the team felt comfortable promoting the 19-year-old Byron from the Xfinity Series. That will not happen, however, as Hendrick named Alex Bowman on Thursday to fill the seat Earnhardt will vacate.

Which driver may potentially move to a different team is continually shifting. With many teams operating on reduced budgets due to a lack of sponsorship, organizations are hesitant to commit to a driver before sponsorship is secure, further muddying an already fluid situation. All that’s certain is there will be much change ahead.

Matt Kenseth

With Hendrick choosing to go in a different direction, Kenseth is facing the realization he may not have the opportunity to sign with a competitive organization for next season. The possibility exists he could sign with SHR, though that is dependent on the team finding some additional sponsorship. Barring that, Kenseth will have to decide between joining a lesser team or stepping away with the hope that something more attractive eventually opens up.

Kenseth was asked about his future during a July 18 appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, and acknowledged he doesn’t have anything lined for 2018.

“I don’t feel like that’s going to be an opportunity I’m going to have,” Kenseth said. “I really I don’t know. I really honestly don’t have anything lined up for sure. I will say that I’m not really that worried about it. I’m not really losing sleep over it. I’m not that concerned about next season.”

Brad Keselowski

At the beginning of the season, it seemed a foregone conclusion Keselowski would re-sign with Penske, where he’s been since 2009 and won a Cup title three years later. Negotiations remain ongoing, though, believed to be complicated by Keselowski’s desire to have increased manufacturer support for his Truck Series team and interest in rejoining Hendrick — whether that interest is real or merely a negotiating tactic is up for debate.

Ultimately, Keselowski is expected to stay with Penske. The two sides are “close to a new deal,” multiple sources told SB Nation.

NASCAR XFINITY Series Alsco 300 - PracticePhoto by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
Erik Jones

Erik Jones

The 21-year-old is no longer on the market after JGR’s announcement. However, his leaving FRR opens up an attractive ride with the same equipment Martin Truex Jr. has taken to three wins and the Cup Series points lead.

Kurt Busch

SHR holds an option on Busch’s contract, and co-owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas exercising it largely hinges on whether Monster Energy continues to serve as an anchor sponsor for Busch’s No. 41 team. To varying degrees, Haas is already funding out of his own pocket the teams of Busch, Clint Bowyer, and Danica Patrick, and there is speculation SHR could downsize to three cars if the appropriate sponsorship cannot be found to relieve the burden.

If Busch were to leave, FRR becomes the frontrunner to land the 2017 Daytona 500 winner where he’d replace Jones. Busch had a successful one-year stint with the team in 2013 and the organization is even better situated than it was then, an enticing prospect for a driver who at age 38 is still capable of contending for a second championship

William Byron

The Hendrick camp had been split on on what to do with Byron. Ultimately, the team resisted pushing him too soon, thinking another year in NASCAR’s second-tier division will only help the driver some feel is a prodigy in the mold of Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. What’s clear is that Byron will be in a Hendrick Cup full-time no later than 2019.

Ryan Blaney

Team owner Roger Penske told USA Today he wants to bring Blaney in-house after a three-year loan to Wood Brothers Racing. If Keselowski re-signs as expected, that would mean Team Penske expanding to three cars to accommodate Blaney, whose name has also been speculated as a possible Earnhardt replacement at Hendrick.

But were Keselowski to depart, Blaney then becomes the driver of the No. 2 car — a move sponsor Miller wouldn’t object to as the 23-year-old is an ideal spokesman for the adult beverage thanks to his youth and fun-loving way of life. Regardless, Blaney is likely racing a Penske-owned car next season.

Danica Patrick

With the results absent and Patrick no longer bringing in substantial sponsorship dollars, her future with SHR is in serious doubt. Her contract expires at the end of the season, and for Patrick to return, additional sponsorship is needed, which could be tough considering she no longer moves the marketing needle like she once did.

What Patrick would do if she and SHR separate is unknown. With a new clothing line launched and a fitness book due out in January, Patrick looking outside racing becomes a realistic proposition.

Kasey Kahne

Unless circumstances radically change, Kahne’s tenure with Hendrick will come to an end with his 2018 option not being picked up. A change of scenery would do Kahne good, and a midsized organization could greatly improve itself by signing the 17-time Cup race-winner who, at 37, still has many good years left.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola - QualifyingPhoto by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
Kasey Kahne

Alex Bowman

A lot of factors contributed to Bowman getting the biggest break of his career. Foremost, he did an excellent job as Earnhardt’s fill in a year ago — on the track where he was competitive in several races, and off it where he had great rapport with sponsors and the team. Earnhardt advocating for him publicly also helped convince team owner Rick Hendrick to give him a shot.

Now the pressure is on Bowman to prove he’s deserving. A one-year contract gives the team an out if he doesn’t produce, and if he stumbles Byron is in the wings ready to step in.

Carl Edwards

NASCAR’s white whale who a lot of upper-echelon teams would love to sign, Edwards has given no indication he’s going to give up the Missouri farm life to return to racing on a full-time basis.

Paul Menard

With backing from his family-owned home improvement chain, Menard isn’t lacking sponsorship. That places him in a favorable position where he has more suitors than a driver with just a single win in 382 Cup starts would have otherwise.

What Menard won’t be doing is returning to Richard Childress Racing, which will subsequently contract from three cars to two and has already begun layoffs. Menard’s likely destination is either Penske (Menard sponsors one of Penske’s IndyCar Series teams), which could add a fourth car if Blaney also slides over, or the Wood Brothers as Blaney’s replacement.

Chris Buescher

The second-year driver was loaned by Roush Fenway Racing to JTG Daugherty Racing this season, and that relationship will continue into 2018, Buescher said Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

The story was updated at 1:10 p.m. ET on July 20, 2017

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Tour de France standings 2017: Chris Froome will win the yellow jersey barring disaster

The Tour de France is all but over. Warren Barguil won Stage 18 with a courageous effort up Col d’Izoard, but Chris Froome was the biggest winner, all but securing the yellow jersey through Paris.

Chris Froome will win the 2017 Tour de France, barring a disaster in the next three days.

The yellow jersey bearer finished fourth on Stage 18’s mountain top finish in Izoard. More importantly, he will remain No. 1 atop the general classification. The only other day on which his rivals could possibly take significant time from him will be Saturday’s time trial. Unfortunately for them, Froome is among the best in the world against the watch.

Warren Barguil won the day with a courageous solo effort that gave him his second Tour stage victory and cemented one of the most impressive King of the Mountains campaigns of recent memory. He chased down Colombia’s Darwin Atapuma on a blistering Hors Categorie climb up Col d’Izoard, going solo with roughly five kilometers to the summit.

The day began with a breakaway of 54-plus riders with no one threatening in it — the highest placed man on the general classification was Brice Feillu at 30 minutes back of Froome. Riders attack off the front throughout the relatively even-terrained run up to Col de Vars, but never manage to get away. The breakaway had more than eight minutes of the peloton at one point, and gradually gave ground from there.

Team Sky drove the peloton until Col de Vars, at which point AG2R took the reins. Their aim, as it has been throughout the Tour de France, was to wear down Sky and isolate the yellow jersey so that Romain Bardet could outclimb him, one-on-one. Sky stayed strong but they had to work much harder than they would have liked. AG2R quickly picked up the pace, reducing the time gap to the stage leaders to four minute by the start of the final climb up Col d’Izoard.

AG2R stayed up front on the early slope, Bardet with three teammates and Froome just behind with four. AG2R stayed up front until there were under seven kilometers to go, at which point Mathias Frank and Alexis Vuillermoz fell off the back, leaving Bardet on his own to deal with Froome and three of his teammates — Mikel Nieve, Michal Kwiatkowski, and Mikel Landa — and all but assuring he wouldn’t be able enough time take Froome’s jersey in Paris.

Rigobert Uran, in second place on the general classification stayed on Bardet’s wheel, apparently content to hold his podium position and leave Froome be. The only decisive attack among the general classification contenders came from Landa, who left his teammate behind to pursue his own overall dreams.

That was just fine to Froome, who let Landa go, staying back to mark Bardet and Uran. Bardet made a desperation move, with three kilometers left in the stage — he had to, at that point — but it was fruitless. Froome made a more meaningful attack on a brief descent on the climb.

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How will 2017 Pitt football follow up on beating Penn State and Clemson?

The Panthers are progressing nicely, but this season is probably a bump in the road.

In my North Carolina preview, I mentioned how Larry Fedora had the unstable program achieving at a strangely normal rate. The Tar Heels are now recruiting and playing at a top-30 level. They cannot be called underachievers.

Narduzzi has pulled off a similar feat.

It felt like I was bringing it up in the Pitt preview every year just to twist the knife: the Panthers had, over the course of two decades, experienced brutal close-game luck.

Since Johnny Majors retired and Walt Harris took over, Pitt has had a winning record in one-possession games just five times and has been at least two games under .500 in such games nine times. In this nearly two-decade sample, the Panthers are 35-53 in these contests, a 0.397 win percentage.

The Panthers have managed to attend 13 bowls and share two conference titles in these 18 years. If these demons that have taken over Heinz Field ever relinquish their powers, Pitt could easily become an annual ACC Coastal contender.

I wrote in 2015 that bringing in a guy who helped kill the “Sparty, No!” meme was a deft one.

Baggage: shed. Sort of. Narduzzi is still struggling to get his classes balanced and takes on a massive rebuild of the two-deep, but not only have his Panthers reminded everyone of the program’s upside, they’ve finally won their share of close games.

Pitt is 7-7 in one-possession finishes over the last two years. For this program, that feels like 14-0. Last year they beat two Power 5 champions — Penn State early and national champ Clemson in November — by a combined four points. They were two of the most exciting, symbolic Pitt wins of the last decade. They survived shootouts with Georgia Tech (37-34) and Syracuse (76-61) and finished 20th in S&P+, their best finish in seven years. They fielded maybe their best offense since Dan Marino was quarterback. They took on a brutal schedule, one featuring six S&P+ top-25 teams, and landed punches.

There were still regrets, though.

  • There was the 45-38 loss to Oklahoma State, which could have been a win with one fewer deep-ball breakdown.
  • There was the 37-36 loss at UNC, in which the Tar Heels scored the winning touchdown with two seconds left.
  • There was the 39-36 loss to Virginia Tech, which could have flipped if the Panthers had managed a minus-2 turnover margin instead of minus-3.
  • There was the 31-24 bowl loss to Northwestern, which could have flipped had the Panthers held NU’s Justin Jackson to 150 rushing yards or so instead of 224.

2016 was huge. But the Panthers still left wins on the board, and despite the top-20 S&P+ finish, they ended 8-5. The demons aren’t vanquished just yet, and last year’s pangs might feel a little stronger as Narduzzi attempts a third-year rebuild.

Pitt has to replace star running back James Conner, quarterback Nathan Peterman, tight end Scott Orndoff, All-American guard Dorian Johnson, all-conference tackle Adam Bisnowaty, four of five defensive linemen (including Ejuan Price and Shakir Soto), three of four linebackers, and three of five defensive backs. Plus, Canada leaves Watson with nearly impossible expectations.

The Panthers are not without star power; dynamic rusher/receiver Henderson is back, as are leading receiver Jester Weah, cornerback Avonte Maddox, and, of course, 2016 Piesman Trophy winner Brian O’Neill. And if some high-profile transfers find niches, Pitt will have more than enough talent to challenge good teams.

Still, it’s going to be nearly impossible to match last year’s upside, and Pitt’s success might end up defining how we look back at 2016. Was it the year a corner was turned, or was it a year of dramatic upside and too many missed opportunities?

From a symbolism standpoint, you could do worse than this:

  • Narduzzi is 16-10 after two years, ranked 20th in S&P+ in his second year. He faces a third-year setback.
  • Mentor Mark Dantonio at Michigan State: 16-10 in his first two years, 23rd in S&P+ in year two, and 6-7 in year three.
  • Beginning in year four, Dantonio went 65-16 over his next six seasons.

So there’s that.

2016 in review

2016 Pitt statistical profile.

The offense was not only good; it got better against better teams. Unfortunately, the defense was demonstrably worse.

  • Pitt vs. S&P+ top 50 (3-5): Avg. percentile performance: 68% (80% offense, 36% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.6, Pitt 6.5 | Avg. score: Opp 40, Pitt 36
  • Pitt vs. everyone else (5-0): Avg. percentile performance: 78% (60% offense, 54% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Pitt 7.0, Opp 4.9 | Avg. score: Pitt 50, Opp 28

Against top-50 competition, the offense averaged just 0.4 yards per play fewer than it did against lesser squads, but the defense allowed 1.7 yards per play more. As a result, Pitt games were virtually guaranteed shootouts; only the first and last games of the season finished with fewer than 70 combined points. Not what one would expect from either Pitt or a Narduzzi team.


Pitt offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The most encouraging thing I can say about Watson is that Canada hadn’t proved himself before coming to town either. In nine seasons as a coordinator, Canada had never fielded an Off. S&P+ top 20 offense, and his average finish was 51.9. His first Pitt offense was 46th before his second surged to fourth.

Watson’s track record hasn’t been sterling either. Including his time at Texas — even though he was technically QBs coach and associate head coach, he was at worst a co-coordinator in Charlie Strong’s strange arrangement — he has spent 15 years as an OC with an average Off. S&P+ ranking of 45.7. Since ranking in the top 10 in 2007-08 at Nebraska, that average has ballooned to 64.9. At Louisville, with Teddy Bridgewater at QB, he peaked at 47th in 2013.

Narduzzi and Watson worked together at Miami (Ohio) 25 years ago, and apparently the bond was a good one.

For his struggles as an OC, Watson is still regarded as a good quarterbacks coach. In Peterman’s absence, the Panthers turn to either USC grad transfer Max Browne or sophomore Ben DiNucci. Whereas Peterman averaged 15.4 yards per completion in last year’s explosive offense, Browne and DiNucci combined to average just 8.6. And creating explosiveness will be a key now that Conner, a wonderful grinder in the backfield, is gone.

Syracuse v PittsburghPhoto by Justin Berl/Getty Images
Quadree Henderson

Then again, you don’t have to throw deep to Henderson for him to end up going deep. The 5’8 junior was one of the most thrilling players in the country, gaining 631 rushing yards in just 60 carries. One in five carries went for at least 20 yards, and while he lined up all over the field (he was also targeted with 42 passes), it appears he will begin as Pitt’s No. 1 receiver.

That leaves relative unknowns at running back, but there’s size and upside. Sophomore Chawntez Moss (5’11, 210) and juniors Darrin Hall (5’11, 220) and Qadree Ollison (6’2, 230) combined for 111 carries and 514 yards in 2016. That’s an average of just 4.6 yards per carry, 0.5 below Conner’s pace, but while Conner was far more explosive, this trio was actually more efficient. Plus, two incoming freshmen — Todd Sibley Jr. (5’9, 215) and A.J. Davis (6’0, 205) — are four-star prospects per the 247Sports Composite.

There’s quite a bit of potential in the backfield, and there’s even more up front. Losing Johnson and Bisnowaty hurts, but Piesman-winner O’Neill was a third-team all-conference selection, guards Alex Officer and Alex Bookser have combined for 51 career starts, and size won’t be a problem: the 10 players on the OL two-deep average 6’5, 319. Combined with the bigger backs, that’s quite a bit of meat.

Georgia Tech v PittsburghPhoto by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Brian O’Neill

The receiving corps could be a thrill as long as Weah and Henderson don’t get hurt.

Weah’s return gives the Panthers one sure big-play threat. He was one of the nation’s most underrated receivers, combining a 24.2 yards-per-catch average with a 51 percent success rate. He caught fewer than three passes per game but still nearly finished with 900 receiving yards. Henderson was a nice possession option near the line of scrimmage. The tight end position, meanwhile, has quite a bit of potential as well between four-star sophomore Chris Clark, senior Devon Edwards, Rutgers transfer Matt Flanagan, and incoming four-star Charles Reeves Jr.

Size isn’t an issue here either. Weah is 6’3, backup sophomore Aaron Mathews 6’4, and Reeves is listed at a whopping 6’5, 280.

A single injury could be devastating, though. After Weah and Henderson, Mathews, sophomore Maurice Ffrench, and junior Rafael Araujo-Lopes combined for just nine catches last year.


Pitt defensive radar

The offense has potential, but there’s almost nowhere to go but down. That means the defense will have to pick up the slack. Easier said than done.

A Narduzzi defense is nothing if not aggressive. He is willing to give up big plays in the name of making some. He wants to force college players to make plays college players typically can’t, and that’s great as long as he has the personnel. But his first two Pitt defenses ranked just 50th and 62nd in Def. S&P+. Last year’s Panthers made plays up front but gave up too many big plays; meanwhile, the pass defense was strangely conservative (and still gave up too many big plays).

Pitt allowed 213 gains of 10-plus yards (120th in FBS) and 24 of 40-plus (121st). And that was with Price and Soto up front. That duo combined for 33 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks, and of the nine players to record at least 4.5 TFLs last season, six are gone.

NCAA Football: Marshall at PittsburghCharles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Rori Blair

The end position still has plenty of potential. Rori Blair and Allen Edwards combined for seven TFLs as complementary pieces, and four-star Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix had a good enough spring to be listed as a starter. But there’s a massive void at DT, where the three leading tacklers are gone.

Shane Roy and Amir Watts combined for 6 tackles, and that’s the extent of your experience in the middle. Big things are expected of four-star redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp, but he’s still a redshirt freshman. There’s still plenty of size here, thanks to players like junior Mike Herndon (6’4, 315) and incoming freshman Jalen Twyman (6’2, 315), but there are no proven pieces.

There aren’t many at linebacker either; junior Oluwaseun Idowu is the only of last year’s top four tacklers to return, though senior Quintin Wirginis and sophomore Saleem Brightwell showed some potential in backup roles.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs PittsburghVincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Avonte Maddox

Last year, opponents had to be wary of the run defense and took to the air. They ran just 49 percent of the time on standard downs (123rd in FBS) and 24 percent on passing downs (126th), a sign that there wasn’t much fear of the secondary. Maddox took advantage of the extra attention, combining for 8.5 TFLs and 11 passes defensed, but opponents still completed 64 percent of their passes with a 143.6 passer rating. Pitt basically turned every quarterback into Washington State’s Luke Falk (145.6).

Opposite Maddox will be some combination of sophomores Dane Jackson, Damar Hamllin, and Malik Henderson, junior Phillipie Motley, and redshirt freshman Therran Coleman. Blue-chip freshman Paris Ford could help, but he needs to secure his eligibility first.

Safety was less of an issue last year, but it remains unsure. Free safety Jordan Whitehead returns, and junior Dennis Briggs had 2.5 TFLs and a breakup and might be a play-maker. But once again, if someone gets hurt, there’s almost nothing proven after them.

Special Teams

Chris Blewitt made the biggest field goal of his life against Clemson but still left something to be desired from a consistency standpoint. Pitt ranked just 85th in field goal efficiency, and while punter Ryan Winslow’s leg was strong (42.6 average), the Panthers ranked just 103rd in punt efficiency because of an eight-yard return average.

When you grade poorly in those, you’re going to grade poorly in Special Teams S&P+. Pitt ranked 81st, losing about 0.4 points per game, despite Henderson’s superhuman averages (30.5 yards per kick return, 15.8 yards per punt return, four combined touchdowns). Winslow is back, but Blewitt is replaceable, and Pitt isn’t likely to fall further here.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Youngstown State NR 25.0 93%
9-Sep at Penn State 8 -16.0 18%
16-Sep Oklahoma State 22 -2.4 44%
23-Sep at Georgia Tech 31 -3.3 42%
30-Sep Rice 120 24.6 92%
7-Oct at Syracuse 60 2.3 55%
14-Oct N.C. State 27 0.9 52%
21-Oct at Duke 65 2.9 57%
28-Oct Virginia 70 10.7 73%
9-Nov North Carolina 38 3.8 59%
18-Nov at Virginia Tech 25 -5.7 37%
24-Nov Miami 18 -3.2 43%
Projected S&P+ Rk 33
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 13 / 78
Projected wins 6.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 7.8 (35)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 33 / 41
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -0.4
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 44% (44%, 44%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.2 (-0.2)

Ten years ago, Pitt pulled one of its biggest upsets ever, when a team that had lost seven of its last nine games went to Morgantown and took down No. 2 West Virginia, 13-9.

It was the biggest possible rivalry move — we can’t make anything of our season, but we’re going to destroy yours — and it was a springboard. Pitt went 19-7 over the next two seasons, their best two-year win total since 1981-82.

It’s hard to imagine that happening again following last year’s PSU and Clemson wins. The Panthers just have too much to replace. And that’s fine — sometimes it takes a while to get your classes balanced, and Narduzzi’s mentor experienced a third-year blip before he got rolling at Michigan State.

But as with UNC, newfound normalcy will be tested by a 2017 blip. If Pitt manages a top-40 performance and wins seven or eight games, that could set up a nice run in 2018 and beyond. This team doesn’t have many seniors, after all.

In the increasingly talented ACC, a top-40 performance could take on a lot of looks in the win column. S&P+ projects Pitt 33rd, which means three likely wins (Youngstown State, Rice, Virginia), one likely loss (at Penn State), and a whopping eight relative tossups with win probability between 37 and 59 percent. Pitt has played 14 one-possession games in two years; unless the Panthers fall further than expected, that average probably won’t go down.

That means 4-8 and 10-2 are technically on the table, depending on the bounces that eluded the Panthers for so many years.

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