10. Expectations for Pitt haven’t been this high since the '80s.
It’s true. Even as the 2005 season loomed, with Pitt in the top 25 and ESPN College GameDay on site for an opening weekend battle vs. Notre Dame, expectations were met with cautious optimism as “Wanny” took the helm for departed coach Walt Harris.
Three bowl-less seasons later, the Panthers are loaded with talent and ready to get back to their winning ways. Pitt may be one of the few teams in the nation to finish with less than six wins and still be considered by many to be a conference contender.
Not since the days of Marino has such an emphasis been placed on winning now. That’s a tall task for a bunch of 20-somethings, but it comes with the territory in big time college football.
9. Pitt fans and students will continue to make excuses not to fill Heinz Field, even as the team rises to national prominence once more.
Only three things in life are certain in the ‘Burgh: death, taxes, and empty seats on Saturday home games.
Pittsburgh fans are known for their ability to make any and every excuse for not showing up on Saturdays to watch the Panthers. Even when Pitt was in its heyday during the '70s, Pitt Stadium was rarely filled to the brim with fans, so it’s not shocking that the attitude has carried over into the 2000s.
Pitt students have a penchant for showing up at games for one of two reasons: they try to get on TV, or West Virginia is in town.
Even with free shuttles to and from games and plenty of activities right up to kickoff, students would rather stay in Oakland then travel the 14 minutes to the North Shore.
Don’t ask me why.
With a state-of-the-art facility and home games against the best Big East teams—including the Backyard Brawl with WVU—the walls of the stadium should crumble under the weight of fans rushing to fill the seats.
With the team on the verge of possible greatness, the only thing that should stop fans from seeing the game is a lack of seating.
8. Phil Bennett will continue to raise the bar for the Pitt defense.
Following the departure of Paul Rhoads to Auburn, the Panthers were left wondering who would fill the hole left by their charismatic defensive coordinator. Not the most effective in his days at Pitt, players gravitated to Rhoads because of his enthusiasm and hard-nosed approach to the game.
The mauling of WVU still fresh in their minds, this year’s Pitt defense was and is still looking toward a promising future.
Bennett may be the coordinator, but people around the program know that Dave Wannstedt is the man behind the machine and will still have a hand in the overall gameplan.
Early returns seem to support that players have adapted to Bennett, who still uses most of the terminology implemented by Rhoads during his tenure, so Scott McKillop and the Panther defense will take another huge leap forward and not back.
Although his term as head coach at SMU was generally a losing campaign, Bennett has a pedigree of coaching top defenses at LSU, Kansas St., and Texas A&M.
7. Derek Kinder will be the heart and soul of the Panthers.
Maybe the most absolute of all the things known about Pitt this year is this—Kinder is a flat-out gamer. Pitt is almost lucky Kinder is back for another season—he should be in the NFL.
Had it not been for an ACL injury during summer practices last year, the wideout would have enjoyed his senior year last year. Instead he is on campus for one final go-round in the Big East.
Kinder may be most known for the devastating block he put on two WVU players during Darrell Revis’ punt return in the 2006 Backyard Brawl in Pittsburgh, but that hardly tells the tale for him.
Kinder is an all-around force on the field—he is the most polished receiver on the Pitt roster and shows guts every play, blocking and doing whatever is asked of him without objection.
It’s the grit and determination he has that will do wonders for the young team, not just his stat production. If there was ever a player that “led by example,” it would be Kinder.
6. Jonathan Baldwin will be the best freshman from this year’s recruiting class.
Although hyperbole, Baldwin seems to have the talent to make people at least utter the phrase, even in jest.
A tight end in high school, Baldwin was the gem of Pitt’s recruiting class this year, and with good reason. He looked like a man amongst boys during the Army High School All-American game and even made Terrelle Pryor look better by making catches in traffic.
A little raw when it comes to route running, Baldwin may not have time to learn the ropes. Mo Williams, expected to fill the other receiver spot aside Kinder, was ruled academically ineligible and may transfer.
That leaves the door wide open for Baldwin to step in from day one and make plays. With his 6’6” size and 4.5 speed, he will give any Pitt quarterback a big target and can take pressure off the running game.