With the uncommon anticipation of this 124th season of football at the University of Pittsburgh comes common uncertainty. Anyone who followed the program during its Big East era maintains a healthy dose of guarded optimism as it looks to improve its stead in the ACC.
In his first year on the job, head coach Paul Chryst made progress not consistently reflected in his team's inconsistent play. He earned the trust of players whose trust had been abused by Todd Graham, and he helped many reach individual ceilings, even in cases where those ceilings appeared relatively low.
Tailback Ray Graham, though plagued by a hamstring injury that kept him from the BBVA Compass Bowl, erased initial doubts about his health by topping 1,000 yards and climbing to second in Pitt history in all-time rushing yardage.
Wide receivers Mike Shanahan and Devin Street made first team all conference in 2012, along with center Ryan Turnley.
Tackle Aaron Donald, named to multiple 2013 watch lists, and safety Jason Hendricks, a Preseason All-ACC selection, led a burgeoning defense that ranked in the top 20 nationally.
Let's not overlook the erstwhile quarterback, either. You wouldn't find a more polarizing player on previous Panther squads than Tino Sunseri, but, for all his warts, he threw 21 touchdown passes against just three interceptions under the guidance of Chryst and new offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph.
Having said all this, much of the team's 2012 leadership is gone. Now Chryst must rely upon the lessons he's learned thus far from his first sideline gig in 20 years, along with inexperienced talent on offense and his own bumper crop of recruits, to make this team tough enough to survive a much more competitive schedule.
Here are five games that will define the Panthers' inaugural ACC campaign:
5. Pitt at Virginia Tech; Sat., Oct. 12
Last season did not start off promisingly for the Panthers. They were outplayed and out-coached by FCS visitor Youngstown State, and then they were embarrassed at Cincinnati in prime time before returning home to take on 2-0 Virginia Tech.
However, Chryst reestablished the proud Pitt tradition of making Frank Beamer one’s punching bag, collecting his first win with the program in a 35-17 upset of the No. 13 Hokies. The Panthers have won their last four meetings by an average of 15 points per game.
In 2003, they earned a last minute win over a top-five Tech team at Heinz Field that featured a great performance from Heisman runner-up Larry Fitzgerald in front of a national television audience. That mirrored a 2002 win over then-No. 3 Tech by the Panthers—their first ever victory in Blacksburg—in which Fitzgerald scored three times.
In 2001, Pitt surprised many by hammering the Hokies as part of a late season surge toward bowl eligibility, and in 1997 Pitt unexpectedly edged Virginia Tech in its final home game to keep its bowl hopes alive.
Virginia Tech only managed 59 yards rushing last time against a Pitt defensive front that remains largely the same, and, although its running game may ultimately get better, it’s also gotten younger. Plus, the Panthers picked off Logan Thomas three times and sacked him twice in that Sept. 15, 2012 contest.
During his lone season at Pitt, Rushel Shell torched Tech for 159 yards on 23 carries. Could we see a similar breakout performance by James Conner, another intriguing freshman tailback?
More importantly, in their first meeting as Coastal Division rivals, can the Panthers win in a tough environment against an old foe whose number they’ve had?
4. Pitt at Navy; Sat., Oct. 26
First, let’s look at the historical significance. By the time the Panthers arrive in Annapolis, it will have been just over 37 years to the day this happened:
Second, let’s look at the immediate implications. For Pitt’s defense, particularly that front seven, this will be its first litmus test against the triple-option offense that Paul Johnson installed at Navy once upon a time—an offense they will see again the very next weekend, when they meet Johnson’s Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The Jackets, by the way, used that scheme to earn a winning record in Coastal Division play last year, and they were the division’s de facto representative in the ACC Championship Game.
Anyway, the Midshipmen averaged 278.5 rushing yards per game last season, ranking sixth in all of major college football (Georgia Tech was fourth). Quarterback Keenan Reynolds returns after a promising freshman season in which he amassed 1,547 all-purpose yards in eight starts, ran for 10 TD’s, threw for nine more and was intercepted only twice.
Last year, Pitt defended the run pretty well, though, during the off-season, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo talked about tweaking his offense to make it run a little faster. That could be an interesting challenge for this defense, which, for all its talent, doesn’t have quite as much speed.
3. Pitt vs. Notre Dame; Sat., Nov. 9
Point blank, the Golden Domers, last year, won a game that they probably had no business winning, while Pitt, as few beyond Pitt could do, lost a game that it probably had no business losing.
Dennis Hennigan’s officiating crew called a crucial defensive pass interference on Pitt cornerback K’Waun Williams that clearly wasn’t, which led to a touchdown. Kevin Harper missed a field goal in overtime—shorter than the two he made—that would have given the road 'dogs an enormous upset.
But you can’t throw either party under the Greyhound without also making Graham grab a wheel. Had he run the opposite direction on the third-down play that preceded Harper’s miss, the latter wouldn’t have had to kick from an extreme angle. Give him a more favorable spot, and chances are Harper would have altered history.
Notre Dame may not get another national title shot this year, but reaching one of the other BCS games is still a realistic goal. A win by the Panthers in this grudge match would mean not just atonement, but also a bump in team and fan confidence, and Pitt, as it demonstrated last fall, matches up unusually well with the Irish these days.
Although Pitt trails the all-time series 20-47-1, the last five meetings have been decided by a total of 20 points. On Saturday, Tommy Rees looked sharp against Temple, throwing for 346 yards and three touchdowns, but in his brief appearance versus Pitt last year, he was limited to 64 yards and threw a costly interception.
Walt Harris got memorable wins over Notre Dame in the last game ever played at Pitt Stadium, and several years later in South Bend, when Tyler Palko’s potty mouth drew as much attention as his arm.
Dave Wannstedt got a memorable win there in quadruple overtime, followed by a nationally televised nail-biter at Heinz Field the next year in which his Panthers prevailed.
Paul Chryst should have had one last year. Could this be his turn?
2. Pitt vs. Miami; Fri., Nov. 29
It’s all about “The U,” and, historically, this renewed rivalry has been all about them. Pitt has not defeated Miami since 1997, and some of the more frustrating losses it endured as a Big East member came against the ‘Canes.
The importance of the latest chapter doesn’t need much of an explanation. It’s the regular season finale for both teams, so, by then, we’ll have a much better idea of how smooth or bumpy Pitt’s transition to the ACC will be in the long haul.
But if you need an opposing star to entertain your curiosity, so be it. Sophomore running back Duke Johnson was mentioned on a couple of preseason Heisman watch lists after gaining 1,839 yards on offense and special teams last year, earning both Freshman All-American and ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He got off on the right foot by carving up Florida Atlantic for 186 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries over the weekend.
The Hurricanes are a wild card in the Coastal Division race. They can move the ball on you, but they’ve shown in the past that you can move the ball on them (118th in FBS in total defense in 2012).
In a game that could help decide bowl eligibility for the Panthers, will Tom Savage—or, failing that, Chad Voytik—have gotten comfortable enough in Chryst’s offense to do that? Or will Miami’s defense, which has returned eight starters, get better with age?
1. Pitt vs. No. 11 Florida State; Monday
For all the justifiable criticism athletic director Steve Pederson has received over his football program, he deserves the same amount of credit for orchestrating Pitt’s change of conferences and for collaborating on this lid-lifter.
Today, at Pitt, it’s all about tomorrow. But it needs an honest barometer, and its fans deserve one sooner, not later. Building confidence by scheduling an out-of-conference cupcake hasn’t always gone as smoothly as it would have liked—just ask Chryst. Building character by using the Orange Bowl champs and widespread ACC favorites to find out where the Panthers stand right now will be the biggest takeaway from this prime-time contest regardless of its final score.
Street will be joined at wide receiver by top Pennsylvania recruit Tyler Boyd, who will make his collegiate debut, as will Conner, who will back up junior tailback Isaac Bennett. The journeyman Savage, who boasts a better physique and a stronger arm than Sunseri, will try to shake off three years’ worth of rust, and he’ll be protected by three new offensive linemen.
Together, they will line up against an FSU defense that ranked second in the nation in 2012. Including nose guard Timmy Jernigan and cornerback Ronald Darby, the ‘Noles have all conference talent from front to back, and their defensive ends are coached by a former Pitt standout, Sal Sunseri (Tino’s father).
Still, like Pitt, they’re young in a number of spots, and they enter Heinz Field with a raw quarterback. Redshirt freshman Jameis Winston has turned heads since high school, but will he keep his poise on such a big stage for the first time as a collegian? Having two seasoned running backs and an offensive line loaded with NFL hopefuls sure helps.
But, as any coach will be quick to point out, no team comes out of the tunnel sharp as a tack in game one. Because of Florida State’s pedigree, don’t be surprised if the Panthers are overwhelmed, but don’t be surprised if they put up a fight, either. If Pitt minimizes offensive mistakes, slows down the dynamic backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder with its experienced defense, and forces Winston to win the game by himself, it has a shot.
Interest in this program, which has been long on promise and short on delivery, is on the rise again. This is as good an opportunity as Pitt has had in several years to capitalize on that interest.
In any event, lessons will be learned on this Labor Day evening.
Honorable Mention: Pitt at Syracuse; Sat., Nov. 23
Which game barely missed my cut? Quite frankly, I’m tempted to just name the remaining ones en masse. That’s just how difficult it is to get a read on the 2013 Panthers. No game on their schedule seems like a guaranteed loss, but history teaches us no game on their schedule is a guaranteed win.
Consider this one of the more winnable ones. The continuation of Pitt’s rivalry with fellow ACC newcomer Syracuse, its annual primary crossover opponent, is fascinating because a number of outlets predicted a better first season for the Orange in their new surroundings.
The ‘Cuse can empathize with what Pitt has been through. They have to integrate a new quarterback, Drew Allen, who left some things to be desired against Penn State on Saturday. They have a new coach, Scott Shafer, who is obviously familiar with the program as its former defensive coordinator, but as a head coach, is less proven.
To Shafer’s credit, he schooled his defense well enough to stymie Pitt at the Carrier Dome last year. Prior to that, the Panthers had won seven meetings in a row, and all but one by double digits. It would behoove them to figure out that defense—which graduated its top two tacklers—and start a new streak during the toughest month of their season.
These Panthers aren’t going to be the Fighting Irish. They also aren’t going to be the Fighting Armadillos. If their happy medium is even remotely happy, fans should be happy with Chryst for the time being.
Patience is not necessarily a word they want to hear, and understandably so. But it is required while the young talent at Pitt matures and the recruiting base expands over the next few years, at which point we’ll know better if the program can regain relevance under this coaching staff.
In the meantime, the mission objective for the Panthers is to continue a five-year streak of bowl eligibility. The aforementioned five (technically, six) games should decide whether or not that streak continues.