An absurdly premature assessment of the 2011 Panthers.
• Previously On… The axe that fell on Dave Wannstedt last December might have seemed abrupt on the heels of Pitt's third straight winning season, but in retrospect it was probably being sharpened at least as early as mid-October. By the start of Big East play, the Panthers had already ceded their status as de facto conference frontrunner thanks to three early losses — at Utah on opening night, at the hands of Miami in a Thursday night ESPN game, at Notre Dame on national television — that emphatically wiped visions of the long-awaited BCS breakthrough out of the forecasts. Instead, they limped into December bound for something called the BBVA Compass without a single notable win, and soon enough without a head coach.
A month later, they still didn't have a head coach, after first choice Mike Haywood was shown the door just hours after a New Year's Eve arrest for domestic assault, barely two weeks after he'd accepted the job as Wannstedt's replacement. Todd Graham showed up from Tulsa a few days later as the program's third head coach in a little over a month, finding the state of affairs in essentially the same state of mediocrity and disarray Wannstedt inherited six years ago.
• The Big Change. If nothing else, Graham immediately proved himself as an effective salesman, showing up on Pitt's doorstep in January whispering just the sweet nothings the faithful needed to hear. First, he pledged to install a fast-paced, no-huddle offense that will keep the masses of Heinz Field on their feet in awe and anticipation of its "speed and explosive power." Second, he vowed to improve team discipline and hold players accountable on the heels of a six-month stretch in which four Panthers were arrested for violent crimes, including a starting defensive end who allegedly threw a man through a glass door and a backup safety who allegedly assaulting a pregnant woman, on top of the embarrassment over Haywood.
|•The Least You Should Know About...|
|•• In 2010|
|8-5 (5-2 Big East,T-1st); Won BBVA Compass Bowl.|
|•• Past Five Years|
|2006-10: 38-25 (20-15 Big East); three straight bowl games.|
|•• Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*|
|2007-11: 26 • 28 • 47 • 33 • N/A.|
|•• Best Player|
|Even Pitt fans didn't expect to hear much from defensive end Brandon Lindsey, an unheralded junior buried on the depth chart behind long-in-the-tooth headliners Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard. By the end of the year, though, the torch had already been passed, with Lindsey finishing as the team leader in sacks and the Big East leader in tackles for loss, good enough to command a second-team all-conference nod from league coaches who likely had no idea who he was before cuing up the film. The transition to a 3-4 scheme will test Lindsey's versatility at the new "Panther" position, a hybrid end/outside linebacker role that should keep him front and center in the pass rush.|
|•• Best Year Ever|
|Pitt actually claims nine national championships, seven of them predating the poll era and eight of them predating World War II. The only Year of the Panther anyone actually remembers, however, is 1976, the season of Tony Dorsett's Heisman Trophy and a nearly uncontested run to the top of every major poll — only West Virginia (a 24-16 loser in November) managed to keep the final margin within single digits, and Penn State and Georgia were dispatched by a combined score of 51-10 to close out the perfect season and the title. Seventy-six was also the start of Pitt's only modern run as a bankable national power: After coach Johnny Majors' post-championship departure for Tennessee, protégé Jackie Sherrill lured the likes of Hugh Green, Mark May and Dan Marino and had the Panthers back in the top 10 of the final AP poll in four of the next five years.|
|•• Best Case|
|The new schemes take on both sides; Sunseri finds a go-to receiver and lifts his efficiency rating above 150; the defense continues to hassle quarterbacks and emerges as the best in the Big East. 9-3, Big East champions, BCS bowl.|
|•• Worst Case|
|Running game stagnates; Sunseri struggles with untimely turnovers; the new defense fails to catch on. 5-7, no bowl; rinse, repeat, start over in 2012 from square one.|
|* Based on Rivals' national rankings (top 50 only)|
The "discipline" part is off to a bit of a rocky start. But Graham and passing game coordinator Mike Norvell bring a track record from Tulsa for ringing up a lot of yards on a lot of plays: The Hurricane led the nation in total offense two years in a row with spread guru Gus Malzahn at the helm in 2007-08 and roared back into the top 10 in total and scoring offense last year, sans Malzahn, capped by a 62-point outburst in the Hawaii Bowl.
Graham also solidified his commitment to a shotgun-based running game by snapping up Michigan refugee Calvin McGee, a key part of the brain trust behind West Virginia's dynamic spread offenses under Rich Rodriguez and Michigan's prolific attack last year, all based on exploiting a dynamic talent at quarterback (Pat White, Denard Robinson) as a runner. He's not going to find that kind of talent anywhere on Pitt's roster, but if the Panthers sputter, it's not going to be because the coaches aren't willing to open things up.
• Big Men On Campus. The new staff isn't leaving well enough alone on defense, either, overturning the tried-and-true 4-3 setup for a new 3-4 look that will take top pass rusher Brandon Lindsey's hand off the ground as an outside linebacker. Either way, the front seven as a whole has earned the adjective grizzled: All six returning starters on the line and at linebacker are seniors who started or played significantly in every game last year, the Panthers' second straight in the top 25 in rushing, total and scoring D, as well as sacks per game.
• Open Casting. It's a testament to just how absurdly high running back Dion Lewis set the bar in his breakout freshman campaign in 2009 that his 1,063-yard, 13-touchdown encore was considered one of the most glaring disappointments of the season, and that the 5-foot-7 mighty mite still saw fit to 44 percent of their total yards from scrimmage in 2010, which doesn't sound nearly as dire when you compare it to the 62 percent share Lewis and Baldwin commanded in 2009. Unlike this time last year, there's a conceivable replacement for Lewis in Ray Graham, who led the team in rushing for most of last season and more than held his own with 922 yards and eight touchdowns in part-time duty. They'll need every bit of that again this fall, and more to buoy an attack that can't possibly hope to match Baldwin's singular downfield threat with any of the returning receivers.
• Overly optimistic spring narrative. The up-tempo offense sets Pitt apart in a plodding, offensively-challenged conference that can probably be had for the low, low price of about 28 points per game. (Co-champs UConn and West Virginia averaged 26 and 25 per game last year, respectively.) That mark should be well within range of a competent veteran quarterback operating behind a mostly intact line, opposite a senior-saturated defense good enough to make every score count — as long it's not undermined by the turnovers that plagued the Panthers in every loss in 2010.
• The Big Question: Can Tino Sunseri make the no-huddle attack go?
The offense isn't bereft, but the early exits by Lewis and Baldwin mean it is composed entirely of bit players in search of a headliner. Ray Graham is good enough to keep defenses honest against the run, but the main job of moving the sticks will fall on Sunseri's grasp of the new offense, his ability to fulfill some of its basic quarterback running requirements and to consistently keep a cast of adequate-but-uninspiring targets involved.
One priority: Improving a weak touchdown percentage in the red zone, where they only managed to find the end zone on seven of 17 trips last year in five losses, including a 1-for-4 night at Utah, an 0-for-3 effort against Miami and a 1-for-4 afternoon at Notre Dame. The most obvious candidates for reversing that trend are towering receivers Mike Shanahan (6-5) and Devin Street (6-4), who somehow managed to come down with just three TDs between them on 68 catches. Simply making good on those opportunities could be the difference in a Big East title and another Compass Bowl.
- - -
Other premature assessments (in alphabetical order): Arkansas. … Central Michigan. … Georgia Tech. … Iowa State. … Louisiana-Lafayette. … Marshall. … Nebraska. … Nevada. … South Florida. … Syracuse.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.