Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

Part of the Doc's Big East Week.

I wrote back in the spring that it was about time Dave Wannstedt had the last laugh on the critics who wanted him out as his alma mater's head coach after three straight bowl-less seasons from 2005-07, and this has the makings of that year. Apparently Big East beat writers agree, casting 22 of 24 first-place votes for Pittsburgh today at the conference's preseason media gala. That corresponds with the opinion of the preseason magazines to anoint the Panthers as the official Big East Favorites.

That may or may not have anything to do with Wannstedt's prowess as a program builder, which (like everything else in the conference the last two years) has been engulfed by the shadow of Brian Kelly's looming juggernaut at Cincinnati. Even when Wannstedt's moment of triumph seemed certain last December, with Pitt up 31-10 over Cincy just before halftime in the winner-take-all finale for the conference championship, it was Kelly's Cardiac 'Cats who ultimately prevailed, outscoring the Panthers 35-13 over the final 31 minutes for a 45-44 win. The Bearcats' decisive touchdown and PAT came just a few moments after Pitt botched the extra point on its own go-ahead touchdown, likely preventing overtime.

A fittingly obscure way to have the rug pulled from under you in one of the wildest games of the season. And if Kelly was back at Cincinnati instead of assuming the reins at Notre Dame, most of the votes today for Pitt – maybe close to all of them – would have almost certainly been cast for the Bearcats.

With kicker Dan Hutchins' redemption on the game-winning field goal to beat North Carolina in the bowl game, though, there can be no denying that Wannstedt has finally guided the program out of the malaise of his first three seasons. 2009 was the Panthers' first 10-win season since 1981, in the glory days of Dan Marino, Hugh Green and Mark May, and was 11 combined points in three last-minute losses from going undefeated. The back-to-back 5-2 conference records match their best efforts since joining the Big East. Wannstedt's recruiting classes have consistently ranked alongside West Virginia at the top of the conference rankings. The conference championship is the only step left.

And on paper, anyway, they're the obvious choice to take it. The quarterback will be alarmingly green, but he'll be flanked by workhorse the par excellence Dion Lewis, the nation's leading returning rusher on (literally) a staggering 325-carry effort as a true freshman, and lanky Jonathan Baldwin, one of the most acrobatic, un-coverable deep threats anywhere. The top two pass rushers (ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard) on the nation's top pass-rushing defense both return, with the top two tacklers behind them. Lewis and Romeus were tabbed as the conference's preseason players of the year on offense and defense, respectively. The top challenger according to most ballots, West Virginia, is coming to Heinz Field. And the holdovers from three straight top-30 recruiting classes in 2006-08 are as ripe as they're going to get.

In other words, with the regime change at Cincinnati and a similar QB transition at West Virginia, there is no good reason Pitt shouldn't be favored to win the conference, unless it simply collapses somewhere along the way, even for a game or a half. New quarterback or not, that would be an awfully long way for Wannstedt to come from the struggle for .500 just to be stamped with the same old label: "Can't get over the hump."

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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