As of right now, Pitt is a 6.5 point favorite against West Virginia in the renewal of the Backyard Brawl on September 1, but that doesn’t mean an upset is out of the realm of possibility. In fact, 247Sports’ Josh Pate listed this game as one of his five upsets to watch for next season.
“I look at that one as a solid red sharpie,” said Pate. “Upset special right there. That’s a Thursday. You don’t even have to wait till Saturday.”
Pate’s reasoning stems from the uncertainty surrounding both programs while banking on West Virginia’s question marks surrounding their new starters panning out over Pitt’s. West Virginia returns only nine full-time starters while Pitt returns 17. That being said, Pitt’s two biggest losses of Heisman candidate quarterback Kenny Pickett and Blienitikoff winner Jordan Addison dwarf talent wise of any loss that West Virginia suffered this off-season.
Pate highlighted the secondary of West Virginia as the team’s biggest uncertainty. West Virginia lost 19 players to the transfer portal this off-season, the most of any team in the Big12. The secondary has been the position group to take the biggest hit and will see the most new faces on the team. Pate doesn’t outright say that West Virginia has fixed their secondary issues, but questions whether or not Pitt can take advantage of a potential weakness with their new additions.
“How built is Pitt to expose that in Week 1?” said Pate. “I’m replacing a first-round draft pick in Kenny Pickett, the quarterback. I just watched Jordan Addison, their best wide receiver, head over to USC. That doesn’t mean that the offense just goes into a tailspin. We also have a new offensive coordinator there.”
Both teams will be bringing in new quarterbacks in JT Daniels and Kedon Slovis, but Pate has more faith in Daniels than Slovis judging by his comments. Slovis and Daniels were once teammates at USC with Slovis coming in as a three-star recruit in 2019 and Daniels coming in as the nation’s top quarterback the year prior. Daniels started his true freshman season at USC and threw for 2,672, 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was slated to start in 2019 before he suffered a season-ending injury early on.
Slovis then took over and set several records at USC en route to being one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. He threw for 3,502 passing yards, a 71.9 completion percentage and 30 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. However his numbers declined in each of the last two seasons. Daniels meanwhile has never lived up to the hype surrounding him as a prospect.
After Slovis’s performance forced him to transfer to Georgia, he entered the 2020 season as the team’s third-string quarterback. He would find his way to the starting job towards the end of the year where he would thrive. In his four starts that season, Daniels completed 67.2% of his passes for 1231 yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions en route to a perfect 4-0 record.
Injuries again riddled his 2021 campaign as he made just five starts. There were rumors that he was being rested for the team’s College Football Playoff appearance, but Georgia ended up starting Stetson Bennant who performed well in the playoff. After Bennant’s strong performance in the Orange Bowl, Daniels entered his name into the transfer portal.
Going back to Pate’s comments on the game, he seems very confident in the attitude surrounding Daniels and West Virginia head coach Neal Brown. “If those question marks balance out,” said Pate. “I know Neal Brown and company are very confident that they’ve got their quarterback and JT Daniels and other areas of that team. They have a very quiet confidence about themselves in Morgantown.”
However, the most important aspect in terms of predicting West Virginia over Pitt stems from the fact that it is a rivalry game in week one of the season. Neither team is at mid-season form yet, and both will have the added pressure of playing an emotional rivalry game. With it also being the first game in a decade between these two historic rivals, the talent difference may not matter as much as those outside factors in determining this one’s outcome.
“So you add the rivalry aspect into all that and you’re already getting around a touchdown,” said Pate. “Maybe a little bit under a touchdown, very competitive game, it’s week one, no one knows who anyone is.”
West Virginia and Pitt will kick off their seasons against each other on September 1st at Heinz Field for the first of four consecutive Backyard Brawls.