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Pitt’s season: From start to finish

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Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) plays against N.C State, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Pitt has managed double-digit victories only once since 1981 when junior quarterback Dan Marino was filling the air over Pitt Stadium with footballs and Jackie Sherrill was calling the shots on the sideline.

The Panthers start taking another shot at that elusive mark Saturday in the opener against FCS Albany at Heinz Field. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett looks like he has the confidence and the talent to make it happen, but his start against Albany will be his second since high school.

Will this finally be the year? Let’s take a look:

Albany, 3:30 p.m., Saturday, Heinz Field

FBS teams with realistic championship aspirations should cruise to an easy victory against an FCS opponent. That needs to be the scenario when the Panthers meet the Great Danes. But it’s early in the season, and Pitt looks like a team whose most dramatic improvement will occur later. Pitt, 31-17.

Penn State, 8 p.m., Sept. 8, Heinz Field

Without Saquon Barkley, Penn State won’t be the same team that won the Big Ten in 2016 and 11 games last season. Quarterback Trace McSorley is back, and he’ll be a handful. But if Pitt’s defense becomes the force coaches are expecting, Pitt can hang with the Nittany Lions. Penn State, 27-24.

Georgia Tech, 12:30 p.m., Sept. 15, Heinz Field

With so many seniors, especially at linebacker, Pitt should be able to handle the Ramblin’ Wrecks’ flexbone in their annual meeting. This is Pitt’s first ACC Coastal game of the season. Must win? Considering the goals, yes. Pitt, 35-28.

North Carolina, TBA, Sept. 22, Kenan Memorial Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C.

When 13 players are suspended, even if it’s only for one game, it reveals a flawed culture. That’s what North Carolina will try to fix all season. Pitt, 21-10.

Central Florida, TBA, Sept. 29, Spectrum Stadium, Orlando, Fla.

When you play a good team on the road, even if it’s outside the Power 5, you may have to deal with unwelcome consequences. Such as quarterback McKenzie Milton, who threw for 4,037 yards in an undefeated season last year. UCF, 41-28

Syracuse, TBA, Oct. 6, Heinz Field

Pitt gets this game at the right time – a week after the Orange’s trip to Death Valley to play Clemson. Maybe they’ll be a little defense this time. Two years ago, Pitt won, 76-61, at Heinz Field. This time, Pitt, 35-27.

Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m., Oct. 13, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

Another tough road game. The Irish are a Top 25 team, and Pitt isn’t quite at that level yet. Notre Dame, 26-20.

Duke, TBA, Oct. 27, Heinz Field

The Blue Devils were 4-0, then 4-6 before finishing 7-6 last year. The return of quarterback Daniel Jones and three returning starters on the defensive line makes Duke dangerous. Duke, 17-14.

Virginia, 7:30 p.m., Nov. 2, Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va.

Not wanting to let one loss turn into two – how many times have we heard that cliché? – Pitt recovers against the ‘Hoos. Pitt, 27-20.

Virginia Tech, TBA, Nov. 10, Heinz Field

Now, it’s time to turn toward the finish line and take a shot at that Coastal championship. The Hokies have some holes on defense, and Pitt will be the stronger team. Pitt, 21-16.

Wake Forest, TBA, Nov. 17, BB&T Field, Winston-Salem, N.C.

At 6-4, the season is in on the brink, and Pitt will respond with a strong road effort against a team it never has played. Pitt, 31-17.

Miami, TBA, Nov. 24, Hard Rock Stadium

What are the chances The U will take Pitt lightly three times in five years? Not likely, but this is college football, so be careful if you’re inclinced to bet. Miami, 28-27.

Count ‘em up: 7-5, 6-2 (ACC). Two steps forward, but a step short.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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