Team: Pittsburgh Panthers
2012 W-L: 6-7 (3-4 in Big East)
Head Coach: Paul Chryst (6-7; second season)
Returning Starters: 13 (5 Offense, 8 Defense)
Bad luck, bad hires, bad timing… just seems like nothing can go right for Pittsburgh of late. And this offseason didn’t really make things easier, as players continue to leave the program — most notably would-be standout halfback Rushel Shell this spring, who ended up at arch rival West Virginia. There are two positives: the ACC move and coach Paul Chryst actually sticking around pas the one season mark, but are they enough to outweigh the on-field losses? We’ll find out pretty quickly as Pitt’s thrown into the fire early — a Labor Day date with defending conference champion Florida State. While the Panthers aren’t exactly expected to beat the ‘Noles, a respectable showing could at least show signs that this team is ready and willing to compete in its new conference right away. If they fall flat though, it could be a very long season for a team in transition.
The offense will take on a very different identity than in years’ past, with or without the personnel to do so. Losing Shell and former starting running back Ray Graham (nearly 1,700 yards between them last season), Pitt’s usual propensity for running the ball seems to be a difficult sell. Backup Isaac Bennett will take over primary ball-carrying duties, but without much experience himself, or depth behind him, it’s unlikely you’ll see the Panthers running the ball nearly as much as normal. Making matters a bit more worrisome, the offensive line has to replace its own set of departed players, and try and account for a lack of depth as well. Several freshman could conceivably end up in the regular linemen rotation — a disconcerting thought when you think about the types of pass-rushers Pitt will face in the ACC. With positions shifting around, it may come down to tackle T.J. Clemmings‘s ability to handle a switch to the offensive side of the ball and take pressure of the veteran guards. If the line can come together quickly, it’s obviously a huge relief for both the running game (which needs plenty of help) and the also-green passing attack as well.
Speaking of the passing game — it’s one of the toughest parts of this team to assess, really. Wide receiver Devin Street should be a top-flight receiver this season, but can he handle the pressure of being this team’s primary pass-catcher, with very little support? Out of the six Pitt players to catch more than 10 passes in 2012, Street and tight end J.P. Holtz (13 catches) are the only players to return. They’ll also be thrown to by a new passer in Tom Savage. The former Rutgers quarterback by way of Arizona has not seen a live football game since early 2011, and despite winning the starting job outright, he’s certain to be a little out of it. Having a pass-first mentality (due to inexperience at running back) may not help matters in that regard, as it puts a ton of pressure on Savage very early. Should he struggle through the season’s first four games or so, I’m not sold he stays in that starting job.
Inversely, defense has been a strength for Pitt for quite a while, and figures to be yet again with eight starters returning. Even with all of last year’s perceived turmoil, the Panthers only allowed 21.1 points per game in 2012, and have their eyes on improving upon that figure this season. To do so though, they’ll need more production out of the talented front line, who only tallied 24 sacks in 13 games last season. Aaron Donald collected a good deal of those (5.5), but his true value is in stopping the run — at least in this 4-3 alignment. The senior had 18.5 TFLs, and with motivational tools like a non-Birmingham bowl (sorry, had to) and a potential first round draft pick on the line, I’m tempted to believe he’ll surpass those figures. He’ll receive plenty of help from his veteran line mates too, who should be able to keep the pressure off the team’s linebackers. With more freedom to float in the middle, Todd Thomas and Shane Gordon should thrive while getting involved in stopping the pass, in particular.
Pitt’s secondary also has quite a bit to like, as Jason Hendricks returns and automatically becomes one of the conference’s best options at safety. The physical defender is a hard hitter who not only disrupts passing lanes, but also closes the deal on takeaways as well. Hendricks had six interceptions to go with his 90 tackles last season, and given the state of the pass-rush, we might see an even better fall from him this time around. Of course, a lot of those opportunities come his way due to some questionable CB play, too. They’re a good group, but there’s still this feeling that the corners are simply not performing to their potential. Only a sophomore, Lafayette Pitts hopes to change that perception, along with K’Waun Williams. But if there was a place you’d point to as a weakness for this defense, I’d say the cornerback position is likely it.
The Panthers have plenty to like on defense, and not a whole lot to rave about on offense — so what to think of them? This year’s schedule is tougher than last year’s, the Coastal is likely five-deep, and layout-wise, they just appear to have too many difficult games to close out the season. Maybe Pitt surprises — they have in the past — but unless Tom Savage puts in a true comeback player of the year-type performance, it’s just too hard to see where points are coming from in this offense. And considering the caliber of schools they’re facing, I just think there are far too many opponents on the schedule that can simply outscore them.
Prediction: (4-8) (1-7); no postseason