If one was to browse college football's AP Preseason Top 25, one might notice there is only one team among the 25 with a losing record in 2007. That team would be the Pittsburgh Panthers, finishing 5-7 last year and 3-4 in Big East play.
Just looking at Pitt's recent records would indicate no reason to believe Pitt actually deserves this ranking, but one must dig a little deeper to be able to buy into Pitt as one of the biggest sleepers this season in college football.
Last season, Pitt was stumbling through the season at 4-7. They had lost several close games, with four of those losses coming by a combined 18 points. A bounce or two in Pitt's favor may have resulted in a winning record for the Panthers.
Pitt put a good deal of life into their program with an improbable final week upset of WVU, who was ranked No. 2 at the time and on the verge of a national title game berth. Pitt won mainly behind superb defensive play and the legs of freshman running back LeSean McCoy, even though West Virginia was fully loaded to stop the run.
This win was huge for the program, giving it a much-needed shot in the arm. It was also a huge win on the recruiting trail, as Pitt reeled in several three, four, and even a five-star recruit in the weeks following the upset. This set Pitt up nicely for a breakthrough season in 2008.
Pitt was hit hard by the injury bug throughout the 2007 campaign. On the first day of contact drills, senior-to-be wideout Derek Kinder was lost for the season with a torn ACL. He has redshirted and will return this fall for the Panthers—he was on his way to being the latest stud wide receiver to don the blue and gold before his injury.
In the first game of the 2007 season, starting quarterback Bill Stull tore a ligament in his throwing hand and missed the rest of the season, forcing head coach Dave Wannstedt to turn to a pair of freshman quarterbacks for the remainder of the season.
Top defensive linemen Gus Mustakas was also lost for the season early in the year and will return this fall to help bolster Pitt's defense.
Now why should Pitt be considered a sleeper this season? They return all of their skilled position players from 2007, plus welcome back Kinder, who last played in 2006. The defense finished the season ranked fifth in the country in total defense and return the nation's leading tackler in middle linebacker Scott McKillop.
The defense did lose its coordinator to Auburn, but with a majority of the starters back on defense and the schemes staying the same for the most part, Pitt should not see too much of a dip in production.
With McCoy leading the way on an offense that should be more balanced, McKillop leading the way on defense, a favorable early season schedule, and a projected "down year" in the Big East, there is little reason to believe a healthy Pitt squad can't win the Big East title.
I like to look at rebuilding as four stages: lose big, lose small, win small, win big. Ron Zook has said this method works for him, and look what he is doing at Illinois.
Pitt suffered through big losses in the first few years of Wannstedt's tenure as coach, and last year was the year Pitt made teams worry about playing them. 2008 will be the year that Pitt kicks down the door and enters the college football party.