Ray Graham should be back from his knee injury to lead the Panthers in 2012.
With the 2012 season approaching, now is as good of a time as any to take a closer look at the schedule for Pitt. The Panthers will be breaking in a new coaching staff again this season, which means that the systems will be changing again as well.
Despite the coaching change and some issues, mostly the quarterback and the offensive line, the Panthers could actually surprise some people this year. This article will take a look at each game and sum up the Panthers' chances to win each one.
Tino Sunseri will get a chance to start off the season the right way against Youngstown State.
With a new coaching staff breaking in a new system, a game like this is always important to get the season off on a high note. It's even more important when the Panthers have a Thursday night Big East game just five days later.
Last year, Youngstown State went 6-5, including a 28-6 loss to open the season against Michigan State. The Penguins were once a power on the FCS level but have fallen back to the pack since the days when Jim Tressel was the coach.
This will be a win for the Panthers. It may not be as easy as some people are expecting, but in the end, the Panthers just have too much talent to lose to Youngstown State at home.
Munchie Legaux is the new quarterback for Cincinnati.
Here's the prime-time ESPN game on a Thursday night against a Big East opponent that was mentioned before. This could be a tough game for the Panthers in the second game of the season, as this group may not be ready for a conference opponent so early.
The Bearcats have been a pretty solid team the last few years but are going to be doing some of their own rebuilding this season. Gone are star quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead from the offense. The defense is also in the same boat after losing star tackle Derek Wolfe and top linebacker J.K. Schaffer.
The Bearcats' secondary looks solid, and the defensive ends may be able to rush the passer—the run defense doesn't look very strong. The defensive line is replacing both tackles with a pair of guys who are a bit undersized. Throw in the fact that the linebackers are a bit young, and there's a good chance that the Panthers' ground game has a big evening in a big spot.
The offense for Cincinnati is also a question. Projected quarterback Munchie Legaux is a big dual-threat guy, though he did throw more picks than the staff would have liked last year while Collaros was injured.
Legaux does have a quality corps of receivers to throw to, but the Panthers' secondary could focus on them since the ground game doesn't seem to have a true top back and the line is average at best.
It's really tough to say with this game. This game is early in the season, and both schools are going through a bit of rebuilding. The Panthers do return a bit more talent and production than the Bearcats, but the game is being played in Cincinnati.
In the end, I would have to lean towards Pitt, though this game could go either way.
Logan Thomas is a promising young quarterback.
The third game of the season may be the toughest opponent on the Panthers' schedule. The Hokies are soon to be one of the Panthers' conference rivals once they move to the ACC, but for now, they will just be a tough out-of-conference opponent.
The Hokies return nine starters from their defense, which is always a talented and well-coached unit under Frank Beamer. The whole defensive line, two linebackers and two members of the secondary return, and the Hokies always seem to have more talent to replace players moving on.
On offense, the Hokies get just three starters back, but one of them is promising junior quarterback Logan Thomas.
Thomas is a big 6'6" passer who's hard to bring down when he runs because he weighs 262 pounds and is surprisingly athletic. Thomas returns a pair of key pass-catchers in Marcus Davis and D.J. Coles, which is important as there's basically nothing returning at running back.
The Panthers will have a chance here if the Hokies' ground game can't get going, but this game is very likely going to be a home loss for Pitt.
Jarred Holley and Pitt could start out 3-1.
With West Virginia making the move to the Big 12 and TCU not coming to the Big East, Pitt was forced to add a last-minute opponent to their 2012 schedule.
That meant adding a second opponent from the FCS—Gardner-Webb. It's a less-than-ideal situation, but the Panthers' rebuilding team couldn't afford not to pick up the opponent even if it now means they must win seven games instead of six to reach a bowl game.
Last year, Gardner-Webb struggled, going just 4-7 on the year and 2-4 in their conference. They had a chance to play a pair of FBS teams, losing 30-3 at Ohio and then 48-5 the next weekend at Wake Forest.
The opener against Youngstown State should be a fairly easy win for Pitt, but Gardner-Webb should be even less of a challenge for the Panthers. The good news is that Pitt could be 3-1 with a win here heading into a bye week.
Ryan Nassib is one of the most under-rated quarterbacks in the country.
Following a week off Pitt gets back to their schedule with a Friday night game in Syracuse. The Orange are a significantly better team since Doug Marrone took over the program, but aren't yet one of the better teams in the Big East.
Offensively, Syracuse brings back five starters, including quarterback Ryan Nassib, who quietly had a very efficient season last year when he threw for nearly 2,700 yards and 22 touchdowns to just nine picks.
Nassib gets top receiver Alec Lemon back, and talented, but troubled, Marcus Sales returns to the team as well. Even the offensive line returns three starters, including left tackle Justin Pugh, who could be a very high pick in the 2013 NFL draft. The only issue is that top back Antwon Bailey is gone, and all of the candidates to replace him are inexperienced.
Defensively, the Orange return seven starters. Two starters along the line are back, but the other two spots are likely to be filled by JUCO transfers. All three linebackers are back, including All-Big East selection Marquis Spruill and freshman All-American Dyshawn Davis. The secondary also returns a pair of starters, led by senior safety Shamarko Thomas.
This is a tough game that could go either way. I feel that the Orange may be a bit underrated at the moment, however, the overall talent level in Syracuse isn't quite up to the talent level of Pitt yet. Pitt has a very real chance to win this game and move to 4-1.
Teddy Bridgewater could be in for a big sophomore season.
Charlie Strong has quickly come in and rebuilt Louisville by recruiting better than the Cardinals were able to under Steve Kragthorpe. After reaching minor bowls in each of the past two years, the talent that Strong has recruited may finally be ready to mature this year.
Louisville returns seven starters on offense, including talented sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater—a top recruit out of Miami who showed promise as a true freshman last year.
Bridgewater will get help from top receivers Michaelee Harris and Eli Rogers along with promising sophomore DeVante Parker. Bridgewater is a guy picked by many to have a breakout season, and having a trio of talented receivers with a good mix of size and speed could really help.
The ground game loses top rusher Victor Anderson but returns a pair of juniors who ran for at least 330 yards a year ago including Dominique Brown. The offensive line brings back four starters, including one of the better centers in the country in Mario Benavides, as well as a pair of sophomores at guard who started as freshmen.
Defensively, Louisville brings back eight starters. Three starters are back along the line as well as a bunch of others with significant experience.
Two linebackers return, and both Daniel and Preston Brown are strong players with a chance to be All-Big East selections. The secondary could be very strong, led by shutdown All-Big East corner Adrian Bushell and another All-Big East player in safety Hakeem Smith.
The secondary also brings back a pair of promising sophomores in corner Andrew Johnson, who already has nine starts on his resume, and Calvin Pryor, who could really grow this year.
Even though this is a home game for Pitt, this game is going to be very tough to win. Louisville returns 15 starters from a team that went 7-5 a year ago, but a lot of them are young players ready to take their game to the next level. I'm going to predict a Pitt loss here, as Louisville could win the Big East this season.
Paul Chryst isn't likely to let Pitt lose to Buffalo.
Buffalo may have went just 3-9 last year, following a 2-10 season in 2010, but they played Pitt very close in the opener. Sure, the final score of 35-16 makes it look like an easy win for Pitt, but Buffalo was only down 21-16 in the fourth quarter after missing a two-point conversion.
The Bulls return seven starters on offense but need to find a new quarterback. That means picking either a redshirt freshman, the 2010 starter who sat out last year or a junior who has struggled with interceptions.
Whoever gets the job will be throwing to a group of receivers that loses a pair of starters, though, they do bring back top target Alex Neutz. The good news for the Bulls is that running back Branden Oliver is one of the top small-school backs in the country, and the Bulls also bring back four starters along the offensive line.
Defensively, the Bulls bring back eight starters. Two of three starters along the defensive line are back, as are three of the four starters in the linebacking corps, including star Khalil Mack. The Bulls also bring back both staring corners, including All-MAC pick Najja Johnson, along with their strong safety.
Pitt is likely to win this game as Buffalo is predicted to finish in the bottom half of the MAC. This game could be closer than the spread, but Pitt is the clear favorite and could move to 5-2 with the win.
Matt Brown should help replace Bernard Pierce.
With the loss of West Virginia to the Big 12 and TCU's decision not to join the Big East, the conference scrambled to add Temple in time for this season. The Owls are no longer the joke they were when the Big East kicked them out, but they don't have the talent to compete week in and week out with the Big East.
Last year was the first year post-Al Golden, and though the Owls went 9-4, year two for Steve Addazio may not be as good.
The offense returns just three starters overall, led by dual-threat quarterback Chris Coyer who only started four games a year ago. Top back Bernard Pierce has moved on, but Matt Brown was an All-MAC pick a year ago despite being the second-string back.
The offense is comprised of Jalen Fitzpatrick, Kenneth Harper and a solid group of incoming recruits led by Montrell Dobbs.
The rest of the offense is a question mark, however. Only one starter along the offensive line, right tackle Martin Wallace, is back, and the rest of the projected starters have limited starting experience.
This is never a good thing, let alone when Temple is making the jump from the MAC to the Big East. The receiving corps is also a major question with just one guy back who had more than 60 yards last year.
Five starters are back on defense, led by both of the starters at defensive tackle. Only one linebacker is back, though Ahkeem Smith is almost like another starter back. Just a pair of starters are back in the secondary.
Temple has some talent, but there are a bunch of holes they must fill. Filling that many holes would have been tough in the MAC, but it will be especially tough in the Big East without the same level of talent as other schools. This could give Pitt a sixth win.
To keep the starting job, Tommy Rees must cut the picks this year.
Notre Dame took a win in Pittsburgh last year in a hard-fought 15-12 game. The Irish are a very talented team every year but have found ways to underachieve in recent years. This year is Brian Kelly's third as the coach and is a potential breakout year for the Irish as Kelly's players mature.
The Irish return eight starters on offense led by quarterbacks Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix. Rees was the starter last year, but Hendrix is a guy who may pass him as Rees struggled with interceptions a year ago.
Whoever is the quarterback will have plenty of options as top back Cierre Wood and Tyler Eifert, the top NFL prospect in the country at tight end, lead the other returnees. The Irish also return three starters along the offensive line and three of their top four receivers from a year ago.
Defensively, six starters are back, though they lost another in the offseason when Aaron Lynch transferred closer to home. The line gets two of its three starters back along with freshman All-American end Stephon Tuitt.
Manti Te'o is one of the top linebackers in the nation and leads a unit that returns three of its four starters and also brings back Ishaq Williams—an elite recruit who had a promising first year on campus.
Both Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, the starters at the safety spots, are back as well, even though the Irish need to replace their corners.
Notre Dame is always a tough game, and with the game being in South Bend, it's very hard to pick Pitt to come out with a win. Even with a loss here, the Panthers could come out 6-3.
Lyle McCombs ran for over 1,150 yards as a freshman last year.
UConn is just two years removed from appearing in a BCS bowl—a Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma—though it's hard to tell. Since then, coach Randy Edsall departed and was replaced by ex-Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni. In his first year in Storrs, Pasqualoni led the Huskies to a 5-7 record.
UConn returns six starters on offense, including quarterback Johnny McEntee.
McEntee will have to fight for his job though as JUCO transfer Chandler Whitmer is more physically talented. Whoever wins the job will be throwing to a receiving corps that has lost its top two targets but does bring in Clemson transfer Bryce McNeal and Boston College transfer Shakim Phillips along with All-Big East tight end Ryan Griffin.
Running back Lyle McCombs is also back after running for over 1,150 yards as a freshman last year and will get some help from an offensive line returning three starters.
The defense brings back eight starters but lost its top two players in Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin—both defensive tackles.
Both defensive ends return, but the real talent is in the back seven. At linebacker, both Jory Johnson and Sio Moore have received All-Big East recognition in the past while Yawin Smallwood was a Freshman All-American last year. Corners Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson have also been All-Big East picks in their careers.
Even though this is at UConn, Pitt has a solid chance to pick up the win here. The Huskies offense has been less than impressive, especially in the passing game, and the defense has to replace its top two players which will hurt their ability to stop the run. This game could move Pitt to 7-3, which would qualify the Panthers for a bowl bid.
Khaseem Greene is the brother of Pitt's Ray Graham.
Rutgers may have to replace the man who built the program up from joke status, but they are still a contender to win the Big East. New coach Kyle Flood inherits a team with one of the most talented rosters in the Big East, and the Scarlet Knights could surprise.
Rutgers returns seven starters on offense including the two quarterbacks who shared the job last year in Gary Nova (former Pitt commit) and Chas Dodd.
Neither of them was very consistent last year, but they were each underclassmen with room to grow and pushed each other. Whoever wins the job will be throwing to a receiving unit that has lost Mohamed Sanu but does bring back Quron Pratt and talented 6'6" sophomore Brandon Coleman.
The run game looks strong led by sophomore Jawan Jamison, who ran for 897 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman, though, sophomore Savon Huggins is expected to play a bigger role this year after a disappointing freshman year for such an elite recruit.
The offensive line only returns two starters, but R.J. Dill should be considered to be a third, as the projected right tackle started 33 games at Maryland.
Eight starters are back on defense with the linebacking corps looking loaded with Khaseem Greene, who happens to be the brother of Ray Graham, and Steve Beauharnais returning along with Jamal Merrell.
Star defensive tackle Scott Vallone is one of two starters back on a young, but talented, defensive line. The secondary returns three starters as well, led by All-Big East selections corner Logan Ryan and free safety Duron Harmon.
Rutgers blew Pitt out a year ago and have a very talented team with a bunch of returning starters. It's hard to pick Pitt to win this one.
Could this be the year that B.J. Daniels figures it all out?
Once again, South Florida is projected to finish toward the top of the Big East, but the Bulls have rarely played up to expectations. After a disappointing 5-7 record in 2011, Skip Holtz will be motivated to lead his talented team to a better record this year.
The Bulls return eight starters on offense including four-year starter B.J. Daniels at quarterback. Daniels is a talented dual-threat passer, but he has never been able to put his talent together to take his game to the next level.
This year, he will be throwing to a receiving corps that not only returns the top six pass-catchers from last year, but also adds in Florida transfer Chris Dunkley—a former 5-star recruit.
The run game is a bit of a question as the Bulls lack a guy with the talent to be a true feature back. The role is expected to be split by a few players with senior Demetris Murray leading the way after rushing for 503 yards a year ago. The run game should get some help from a line returning three starters.
The defense returns seven starters with the talent to do more this year. Two starters are back on the defensive line, but the young unit has the talent to take a giant step forward with potential breakout players in ends Ryne Giddins, Tevin Mims and Julius Forte and tackles Elkino Watson and Todd Chandler.
All three linebackers are back after finishing as the top three tacklers on the team a year ago. In the secondary, All-Big East corner Kayvon Webster and strong safety Jon Lejiste are back.
Pitt is likely to be the underdog here since they are on the road against a talented team. This will be a tough game for the Panthers to win, but they have won four straight against the Bulls. Still, I'll call for the Bulls to win. This would put Pitt at 7-5 on the year.