Tue Mar 30 10:17pm EDT
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Panthers.
It's about time for Dave Wannstedt to have his last laugh over the critics who wanted him out as his alma mater's head coach after three straight bowl-less seasons from 2005-07, and last year was almost that time -- the Panthers hit 10 wins for the first time in almost 30 years but were a missed extra point away from the Big East title even after blowing a big second half lead against Cincinnati in the regular season finale, and wound up just 11 points in three last-minute losses from a perfect season. You can't come any closer without getting there, and with bona fide stars back on both sides of the ball, another close shave en route to the Car Care Bowl will seem like much less of a triumph than it did in 2009.
What's Changed. Bill Stull cut his interceptions, dramatically increased his touchdowns and completion percentage and rebounded with gusto from a wobbly junior effort in 2008 with an All-Big East performance as a senior, including a top-10 finish nationally in pass efficiency. He'll be missed more than anyone could have possibly guessed at the beginning of the season.
Double that sentiment when you consider the flashing sirens next to the names of the dueling heirs apparent, sophomore Tino Sunseri and junior Pat Bostick, who both come with obvious issues -- Sunseri didn't get any significant time as the top backup last year, and Bostick got just enough time as a freshman starter in 2007 for fans to balk at the prospect of watching any more. Thrown into the fire after a season-ending injury to Stull, Bostick lobbed up 13 interceptions to eight touchdowns, including a pair of picks in the earth-quaking win at West Virginia in the season finale, a grueling upset the defense dragged across the line in spite of it all. Bostick didn't win any friends when he came on to throw three picks against Notre Dame in his only start of 2008, either, though it turned out to be another big road win, too. On the other hand, as a once-touted fourth-year junior, he has had plenty of mistakes to learn from, which may still trump Sunseri's inexperience when it comes down to it.
What's the Same. The new QB will have no complaint with the support staff, headed by the best individual running back (Dion Lewis) and receiver (Jonathan Baldwin) in the conference. Lewis ran away with the attention as the classic undersized, overlooked underdog made good as conference rushing champ in his first season, but Baldwin looks like the man with a future, courtesy of his lanky, NFL-ready frame and eerily familiar body control on long balls:
That was par for the course: After flashing his big-play ability on just 18 receptions as a freshman, Baldwin blossomed to average 19.5 yards on 57 catches in '09, including eight grabs that covered at least 40 yards. He was shut down as a receiver once, held to five yards on a single catch against Syracuse, and still burned the Orange for 61 yards on his only carry of the season. With Lewis reprising his role as the perpetual motion machine in the backfield, the Panthers' combo should rival Mark Ingram/Julio Jones at Alabama and the Flying Rodgers Brothers at Oregon State as the best running back/receiver collaboration anywhere.
Note also that Stull's leap forward coincided with a vast improvement in pass protection, which went from dead last in the conference in sacks allowed in 2008 to first in 2009. Both of the tackles responsible for that turnaround are back, one of whom, Jason Pinkston, was a first-team All-Big East pick.
You're at a ten. Opposing offenses need you to come down to about a seven. Lewis' emergence notwithstanding, the single most fearsome aspect of last year's team was the pass rush, an assault that managed to lead the nation with 48 QB takedowns despite failing to produce any single player with more than eight. Five of the eight Panthers who had at least four sacks are back, most notably end Greg Romeus, who shared the conference's Defensive Player of the Year honor with departed tackle Mick Williams, the catalyst for all sorts of chaos in the middle. Two other regulars on the line, Jabaal Sheard and Myles Caragein, are also back, but as effective as Romeus and Sheard have been the last two years as edge rushers, it's hard to envision the front four sustaining last year's pace without relying on more blitzes to fill the void left by Williams' departure.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Hometown hero Dan Mason started two games as a true freshman in place of middle linebacker Adam Gunn, initially opening eyes with an 11-tackle, two-sack effort against Navy that earned him Big East Defensive Player of the Week in his first significant action; he was quickly back to earth the following week against the more pass-happy attack from N.C. State, which hung 530 yards and 38 points on the Panthers in the defense's worst game of the season. Eventually, Mason was comfortable enough in coverage by the end of the year to pick off North Carolina's T.J. Yates in the bowl game, an optimistic note to carry into the spring as Gunn's unquestioned successor in the middle.
According to Wannstedt, Mason's duties there will include making most of the defensive calls, potentially a tall order for a true sophomore with only a couple games under belt. But if he handles that, the early returns and practice field buzz peg Mason as the lineup's most obvious up-and-comer.
Best-Case. The wildcard is obviously the quarterback, and he's got just about everything going for him -- elite playmakers in the backfield and at receiver, enough experience up front to keep the line from falling apart, a defense whose specialty should continue to be pressuring opposing offenses into mistakes and setting up short fields. There's no un-winnable game on the schedule, and though I wouldn't forecast an undefeated run through an impressive non-conference gauntlet of Utah, Miami and Notre Dame in the first five games, but taking two of those three could set up an in-conference run to 10-2, culminating in a league championship. If Cincinnati can run the table in the Big East with 10 new starters on defense, this team can expect to come very close.
Worst-Case. It's not realistic to expect Lewis to put up the kind of numbers he managed as a freshman -- for one thing, back-to-back 300-carry seasons all but guarantee some significant wear and tear -- and persistent issues at quarterback and/or in the revamped interior line could allow defenses to pounce on the same kind of one-dimensional attack that kept Lewis' exceptionally talented predecessor, LeSean McCoy, from really breaking out in 2007-08. The defense had its problems against the pass last year with a pair of senior cornerbacks; with two new starters on the outside and a pass rush that almost certainly will not repeat as the most prolific in the country, the Panthers' firepower on offense could be offset by regular shootouts. The games against Utah, Miami and Notre Dame before mid-October are an opportunity, but also a potential nightmare; if bad vibes set in before the start of conference play (likely accompanied by musical chairs at QB), there's still more than enough parity in the Big East to knock Pitt down to 6-6, or even out of the bowl picture altogether.
Non-Binding Forecast. Assuming the quarterback is OK -- that is, he doesn't actively give games away -- the offense should be able to get back around 30 points with consistent efforts by Lewis and Baldwin, and not many teams (especially in the Big East) are going to manage that number against the Panther defense. On paper, this is the best team in the Big East, and due to take the next step to the BCS after the vast improvement over the last three years. The question mark at quarterback and the hellish nonconference schedule will keep from guessing 10 wins in the regular season, but not from tagging the Panthers as the tentative conference favorites, likely bound for the Sugar or Orange bowls and another top-20 finish.