As the college football season draws ever closer to kicking off, the countdown of the 100 best teams continues. Today we preview the No. 53 team on the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview series, the Pittsburgh Panthers.
The Panthers will be guided by their fourth coach in only three seasons. Todd Graham bolted for Arizona State after going 6-6 and losing in the Compass Bowl to Boise State. First year head coach Paul Chryst takes over a program still searching for an identity.
Chryst may be in his first season as a head coach, but he has plenty of experience under his belt. A respected offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, Chryst will bring a more pro-style attack built on running the football. The quarterback taking snaps in the new system will be a familiar name to Pitt fans. Tino Sunseri hasn’t exactly established himself as an elite quarterback in the Big East. That being said, Sunseri isn’t chopped liver either. The Senior passer has compiled a 130.7 QB rating in 30 games. The question for 2012 is how much of his turnover struggles were due to Graham’s spread attack. A run-centered approach by Chryst might take some pressure off and let Sunseri blossom.
Joining Sunseri in the backfield will be senior running back Ray Graham. Graham will be returning from injury in 2011 but has the type of game to give the Panthers faithful plenty to be excited about. The back could easily be first team all Big East. True freshman Russell Shell rated the sixth best back by Rivals will be a welcome addition. Sophomore Isaac Bennett completes the stable.
The line must provide the space for the Pitt running attack to be effective. Unfortunately there are only two returning starters, senior center Ryan Turnley and senior guard Chris Jacobson. Adam Bisnowatay is a top level recruit at tackle but will likely wait this season.
Pitt returns three starting receivers to go along with a returning starter at tight end. Seniors Cam Saddler and Mike Shanahan will give Sunseri plenty of experience. Junior Devin Street was Pitt’s top receiver in 2011 with 754 yards on 53 receptions. Hubie Graham is a solid target for Sunseri at the tight end position. At 6’4″ 230, Graham will not look like the typical Wisconsin tight end coach Chryst is used to, but should be an excellent check down option and possibly more.
Last year Pitt was ranked 35th in total defense. That’s the good news. The bad news is the Panthers must replace seven starters. Aaron Doland is one of the four returning starters on the defensive side but the only one on the line. The junior is plenty talented and will anchor the line as coordinator Dave Huxtable inserts a new 4-3 scheme.
The linebackers will return sophomore Todd Thomas to the starting rotation. Middle backer Dan Mason is back after missing 2011 with a knee injury.
Pitt’s strength on defense is the secondary where K’Waun Williams is not just back at corner, but is also the returning tackling leader from 2011. Jarred Holley headlines the talented safety corps. Holley will likely be playing on Sunday’s next year.
FCS Youngstown State is first up for Pitt on opening day 2012. Cincinnati in Ohio kick-starts the conference schedule September 6. Non-conference games against Virginia Tech September 15, and Notre Dame in South Bend November 3 are troublesome. A road trip to Gardner-Webb September 22 should be an easy win. Louisville , Rutgers, and Temple are all in Heinz Field.
Aside from last year’s game against Rutgers, the Panthers lost by a combined 4 points to Big East competition; Cincinnati and West Virginia to be specific. The Mountaineers are gone to the Big 12, leaving some breathing room before Boise State begins Big East play in 2013.
If it was an identity Pitt was searching for, Paul Chryst can give them that. Little depth and experience in the trenches could seriously hurt the Panthers chances for a Big East title. A lot depends on how quickly the new offensive and defensive schemes are adhered to. A low level bowl game is highly possible, anything more will depend greatly on progression of Sunseri under center.