CHARLOTTESVILLE – Unlike the past three years, when opening with an FCS opponent allowed Virginia a degree of easing into its season, the Cavaliers kickoff 2019 with a conference road game against a team that’s won the last four meetings and at a stadium they’re 0-4 at all-time.

UVA's game at Pittsburgh on Saturday night could go a long way to determining the ACC Coastal Division champion.

It’s the way of the world now that the ACC Network has launched and the league needs weekly games to offer up on its new channel.

But for the teams, it means playing pivotal conference contests right out of the gate.

Each week we’ll ask a local newspaper beat writer – the people who cover these teams the closest – to break down the Cavaliers’ next match up.

John McGonigal, a Philadelphia native and Penn State graduate, is in his first year covering Pitt football for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Before joining the P-G, he spent four years covering Penn State football and athletics for the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa.

McGonigal answered four downs worth of questions about Saturday night’s UVA-Pitt game. For more on the Panthers, read his coverage at post-gazette.com and follow him on Twitter at @jmcgonigal9.

1) With the launch of the ACC Network, early-season conference games are going to be the new reality. How 'ready' does Pitt feel to play, not only an opener, but a pivotal league game in Week 1?

Judging by what they've said all week, the Panthers will be ready. Captain and starting center Jimmy Morrissey actually said he prefers this to playing an Albany or Youngstown State, getting in good competition right off the bat. Pat Narduzzi said facing the ACC Coastal preseason favorite "adds a little extra for the game." Should be a good one.

2) How will Pitt replace Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall? Hall embarrassed Virginia's defense last season. Do the Panthers have a back capable of that this year?

The Panthers might not have one guy that can do what Hall did to Virginia's defense last season. But they have a few backs they're comfortable with. A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley Jr. are listed as co-starters. Expect the former to be more of an every-down guy, and the latter to serve as the Panthers' short-yardage back. True freshman Vincent Davis' shiftiness has impressed despite his 170-pound frame. Meanwhile, former four-star back Mychale Salahuddin was "rusty" as of last week as he returns from a knee injury, so we'll see how much he's used in the opener.

3) With Hall rushing for 229 yards and three touchdowns last season, Pitt didn't need much from quarterback Kenny Pickett and the throw game. How much will the offense need from Pickett this year and what kind of strides has he made?

Pickett won't have to carry the offense completely like the running game did in 2018. But more is expected of the junior in Mark Whipple's offense. Former play-caller Shawn Watson hardly gave Pickett a chance as the Panthers ranked 123rd in the country in passing attempts per game. Five of the seven teams below Pitt were triple-option teams, which says a lot. Whipple — who coached an All-American tight end two seasons ago and mentored the nation's leading receiver last year in Andy Isabella — should bring potency to Pitt's air attack.

4) Rashad Weaver is a game changer at defensive end. How much does it change the Pittsburgh defense that it won't have him and who takes his place?

Losing Weaver is significant. He might have been Pitt's best player, period, if healthy. He was talking about ACC Defensive Player of the Year aspirations at fall media day, after all. In his absence, unproven redshirt sophomore Deslin Alexandre takes his place. Opposite him, a lot is expected of Patrick Jones, who tallied 7.5 TFLs last year as Pitt's primary rotational pass-rusher. Redshirt freshmen John Morgan and Habakkuk Baldonado will push for time behind those two.

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