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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 29: Pittsburgh

Who was the best team in Pittsburgh last season? If you said the Steelers, try again.

For all the talk of the Big East being weaker than usual in 2009 – a statement, I might add, repeated by yours truly – it turned out the conference featured at least two top-notch teams. One was Cincinnati; the other, Pittsburgh. Dave Wannstedt validated the program’s faith with a second consecutive solid season, with 2009’s 10-win finish far more impressive than the breakout 9-4 mark in 2008. If you can think back, recall that the Panthers entered last fall with question marks, facing the task of replacing some of the Big East’s best performers on both sides of the ball. If there’s one thing to take away from 2009: Pittsburgh has turned a corner. The next step is a Big East championship.

Conference
Big East

Location
Pittsburgh

Nickname
Panthers

Returning starters
11 (5 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 42

2009 record
(10-3, 5-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 14

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    at Utah
  • Sept. 11
    New Hampshire
  • Sept. 23
    Miami (Fla.)
  • Oct. 2
    F.I.U.
  • Oct. 9
    at Notre Dame
  • Oct. 16
    at Syracuse
  • Oct. 23
    Rutgers
  • Oct. 30
    Louisville
  • Nov. 11
    at Connecticut
  • Nov. 20
    at U.S.F.
  • Nov. 26
    West Virginia
  • Dec. 4
    at Cincinnati

Last year’s prediction

I believe Pittsburgh has turned a corner, and even with some concerns about how this team will replace key players on offense and defense, I have no doubt that the Panthers will again go bowling in 2009. Do I think Pittsburgh can win the Big East? Yes, I do. Here’s what I know about the 2009 Panthers: the receiver corps is solid, as is the offensive line; the defensive front could be outstanding, especially at end; and the secondary returns enough talent to expect little drop-off from a season ago. For me, the positives outweigh the negatives. I don’t think Pittsburgh will win the Big East, but it’s certainly in the mix. Matching last fall’s nine-win total may be too much to ask, but the Panthers can get to eight victories.

2009 recap

In a nutshell To say that Pittsburgh didn’t miss a beat would be misleading. The Panthers were better, far better, on both sides of the ball, and only missed out on a conference championship due to a pair of single-digit losses over the season’s final two weekends. For the first time during the Wannstedt era, the offense was more than just competent: the 417 points was the second-most in program history. Hard work was done on the ground, with that attack augmented by a ball-control philosophy that left Pittsburgh with the fourth-fewest turnovers in the country. Finally, an offense to catch up with Pittsburgh’s always-stout defense, which finished in the top 20 nationally in yardage, scoring and against the run. The 10-win finish gave the Panthers 19 wins over the last two seasons, a program-best since winning 20 from 1981-82.

High point That 9-1 start included wins against Navy, Connecticut, Rutgers and Notre Dame. It also included a 5-0 start to Big East play, a program first since 2002. Pittsburgh rebounded from that disappointing two-game losing streak to top U.N.C. by 19-17 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Finally, it was Pittsburgh breaking an opponent’s heart with a last-second score, not vice versa.

Low point I don’t believe any team had its B.C.S. dreams shattered quite like Pittsburgh. The Panthers, 9-1 through Nov. 14, lost on a field goal as time expired to rival West Virginia, dropping them to 9-2. Despite the loss, Pitt could earn a B.C.S. berth with a win at home against Cincinnati on Dec. 5. So, so close. The Bearcats scored with 33 seconds left to take a 45-44 win and the conference crown. It was one of the most thrilling games of the year. Unless you’re a Pitt fan.

Tidbit Pittsburgh has had its starting middle linebacker earn first-team all-Big East honors in each of the last five seasons. If we consider this position to be the most important on the defensive side of the ball, this is a staggering fact. The streak began with H.B. Blades (2005-6) and continued with Scott McKillop (2007-8) and Adam Gunn (2009). The next starter in the middle will repeat this feat, though perhaps not in 2010.

Former players in the N.F.L.

26 CB Aaron Berry (Detroit), LB H.B. Blades (Washington), WR Antonio Bryant (Cincinnati), TE Nate Byham (San Francisco), CB Kennard Cox (Seattle), OG C.J. Davis (Carolina), FB Dorin Dickerson (Houston), DT Rashaad Duncan (Buffalo), WR Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona), P Adam Graessle (Pittsburgh), LB Gerald Hayes (Arizona), P Andy Lee (San Francisco), C John Malecki (Tennessee), RB LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia), OG Mike McGlynn (Philadelphia), LB Scott McKillop (San Francisco), OT Jeff Otah (Carolina), QB Tyler Palko (Kansas City), OG Rob Petitti (Carolina), RB Lousaka Polite (Miami), CB Darrelle Revis (New York Jets), LB Clint Session (Indianapolis), CB Shawntae Spencer (San Francisco), RB LaRod Stephens-Howling (Arizona), DT Mick Williams (New York Jets), TE Kris Wilson (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

Quarterbacks from Western Pennsylvania
1. Johnny Unitas.
2. Joe Montana.
3. Dan Marino.
4. Joe Namath.
5. Jim Kelly.

Coaching

Dave Wannstedt (Pittsburgh ’74), 35-27 after five seasons at his alma mater. The Panthers have won 19 games over the last two seasons after struggling through three years of mediocrity under Wannstedt, a former Panthers captain (1973). After winning no fewer than seven games in each year from 2000-4 — and at least eight from 2002-4 — Pittsburgh went 5-6, 6-6 and 5-7 in the first three years under Wannstedt, often showing flashes of brilliance but no tangible results. The team’s breakout season in 2008 took some pressure off of Wannstedt, and his team’s continued success last fall indicates that Wannstedt has this program headed towards its best period in a generation. There’s little reason to expect otherwise: Pittsburgh plays good defense, runs the ball effectively and does its best to limit turnovers, a winning formula for any team. It must be very satisfying for the sixth-year coach to sit back and see what he has built, particularly when recalling the difficult period that defined his first handful of seasons. Wannstedt is well known among football fans for his two head-coaching stints in the N.F.L., first with the Bears (1993-98), then with the Dolphins (2000-4). Both tenures started well – he was the 1994 N.F.C. coach of the year, and was 41-23 through his first four seasons in Miami – but Wannstedt, in both cases, was unable to maintain his early success. Both terms ended poorly: In Chicago, the Bears fired Wannstedt after back-to-back 4-12 seasons from 1997-98, and in Miami, he stepped down after a 1-8 start to the 2004 season. Yet while Wannstedt has had his struggles as a head coach, he has excelled as both a college and pro assistant, most notably under Jimmy Johnson, his coaching mentor. Their association began at Oklahoma State, where Wannstedt served as both defensive line coach (1979-81) and defensive coordinator (1982). After a three-year stint at U.S.C. (1983-85), Wannstedt reunited with Johnson at Miami (1986-88), coaching the defense. Over that three-year span, the Hurricanes went 34-2, winning the 1987 national title; much of that success was due to Wannstedt’s defense, which held opponents to three-year averages of 10.9 points per game and 2.2 yards per carry. Wannstedt followed Johnson to Dallas, serving as his defensive coordinator from 1989-92 and winning one Super Bowl.

Players to watch

How much can one sophomore take? We’ll find out in 2010 whether running back Dion Lewis is built to last — and whether last fall was a fluke — as the Heisman candidate is sure to do the majority of the heavy lifting for this offense. His play as a freshman — perhaps the most shocking rookie campaign in recent N.C.A.A. history — was nothing short of Heisman-worthy in its own right: 1,799 yards rushing (138.4 yards per game, fourth in the nation) and 17 touchdowns, both total shattering former program freshman records. The previous rushing record was held by one Tony Dorsett, one of the finest backs in college football history. Dorsett needs to watch out: if Lewis remains healthy, all his records are in doubt.

Can Lewis continue to withstand the pounding that accompanies a 325-carry season? You have to hand it to the sophomore: 325 tackles — at least — yet not one where Lewis took the full brunt of the hit. Most of the great backs excel at this, of course, having an innate ability to turn their bodies away from the full strength of a tackle. If Lewis does falter in 2010, however, Pitt can turn to fellow sophomore Ray Graham, who rushed for 349 yards and 4 touchdowns last fall. In fact, when heading into 2009, I thought Graham, not Lewis, the freshman most likely to make an immediate impact.

The Panthers will trot out two able, big-bodied receivers. One is a bit more able than the other, for lack of a better word: junior flanker Jon Baldwin came into his own last fall, earning first-team all-Big East honors after his 57-reception, 1,111-yard, 8-touchdown sophomore season. The ability was always there; it was just a matter of Baldwin putting the mental side of the game together with his immense physical skills. He’s more than just a big possession receiver, though Baldwin can play that role as well. He has the ability to get behind the defense, as illustrated in his two touchdown receptions of 70 or more yards last fall. This team will miss Oderick Turner and Cedric McGee, however, and need a few unproven targets to step up into the rotation. Sophomore Mike Shanahan — 6’5, like Baldwin — will start, one year after making 15 receptions for 211 yards. Behind him is converted quarterback Greg Cross and a handful of unknowns.

So who’s going to hand the ball off to Lewis? Better yet, who is going to get the ball to Baldwin? The answer to that question, for now, is sophomore Tino Sunseri. Bill Stull’s former backup stands atop the depth chart thanks to his solid spring, where he largely outplayed junior Pat Bostick, his main competition. Sunseri doesn’t have a lot of experience — 17 attempts last fall — while Bostick’s experience — nine starts as a freshman and sophomore — isn’t that impressive. Nevertheless, I thought Bostick would make a better push for the starting role during spring practice. For now, the job belongs to Sunseri. The Panthers add a pair of freshmen quarterbacks in the fall, but I doubt that either — despite being highly-regarded — will be asked to do more than redshirt in 2010.

As along the offensive line, as I’ll touch on below, the Pittsburgh defensive front is strong on the outside, questionable in the middle. The Panthers return the best end combination in the Big East with senior Jabaal Sheard (42 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 5 sacks) and junior Greg Romeus (43, 11.5 for loss, 8 sacks). Particularly Romeus, a certain all-conference pick who earned co-conference defensive player of the year honors last fall. The problem? Romeus shared that postseason accolade with a teammate, departed tackle Mick Williams. The Panthers must also replace nose tackle Gus Mustakas. Such losses are always troubling, but keep an eye on the new starters: juniors Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih played very well in reserve roles a season ago. Of course, now Pittsburgh must find replacements for the former reserves. And so on, and so on, and so on…

Pitt returns both its outside linebackers, but as seems to be the case every year, much replace a first-team all-conference middle linebacker. What else is new? Now, about that open spot in the middle: don’t worry about it. Dan Mason has it covered. The sophomore made three starts a season ago, earning conference defensive player of the week honors in a win over Navy. He’ll be flanked in the starting lineup by juniors Max Gruder and Greg Williams. Gruder, last season’s leading tackler (91), will be on the strong side, Williams on the weak.

The secondary is led by senior strong safety Dom DeCicco, who despite owning a linebacker’s body — 6’4, 230 pounds — has a nice nose for the football in passing situations. He finished last season with 88 tackles and 3 picks, the latter total tying for the team lead. The Panthers have options at free safety, where they bring back both the player expected to start last season, Andrew Taglianetti, and the player who did start, Jarred Holley. Taglianetti started the first two games of the season before suffering a season-ending knee injury, one that allowed Holley to move into the starting lineup. He’ll be difficult to unseat, with Pittsburgh entertaining the idea of moving Taglianetti between free and strong safety. In either case, he’s an important reserve.

The biggest worry on this defense are the two new starters at cornerback. This new pair will replace starters Aaron Berry, a two-time all-Big East pick, and Jovani Chappel. So who will it be? You have to think that senior Ricky Gary will be in the mix in some capacity, as he brings 10 career starts into his final season. Likewise with junior Antwuan Reed, one of last year’s leading reserves. Keep an eye on JUCO addition Saheed Imoru, who arrived on campus in January. He made the most of his early arrival, vaulting ahead of Gary at one cornerback spot.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line The interior of the offensive line, more specifically. The Panthers are strong at tackle, with senior Jason Pinkston returning on the left side and junior Lucas Nix on the right. Pinkston is clearly an all-conference candidate, if not a potential all-American; Nix is slightly behind in his development, but could take a Pinkston-like leap in 2010, his second year in the starting lineup. Three spots left vacant by departed starters remain unfilled. To be fair, Wannstedt and his offensive staff have highlighted junior Chris Jacobson as the clear starter at left guard. He started in Pittsburgh’s bowl win over North Carolina. The Panthers are also leaning towards starting senior Alex Karabin at center; the former walk-on might not be the most experienced senior in the country, but he’s far closer to a sure thing than redshirt freshman Jack Lippert, a converted defensive lineman. The competition will be far more fierce at right guard. Three players have made claims to the starting role: junior Greg Gaskins, sophomore Ryan Turnley and redshirt freshman Ryan Schlieper. Not surprisingly, it’s Gaskins who currently stands atop the depth chart. What does that mean for Sept. 2? Well, Gaskins has to be considered the favorite to land the starting role, though a lot can happen during fall camp. In addition, don’t overlook the role Pitt’s tight ends played in the team’s dominating run game: we all know about Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson as receivers — especially Dickerson, who was superb last fall — but the pair did lend a hand in helping Lewis crack the 1,700-yard mark. The Panthers return talent at tight end, such as in former Virginia transfer Andrew Devlin, Mike Cruz and Brock DeCicco, but this group pales in comparison to the departed pairing.

Game(s) to watch

Three intriguing non-conference games prior to Big East play. In conference action, the Panthers get Rutgers and West Virginia at home, which helps. You know Pittsburgh will want to avenge last year’s devastating loss to Cincinnati in the season finale.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Why here? Why No. 29 and not, say, around No. 15, where Pittsburgh ended last season? I understand your puzzlement. Bear with me as I attempt to explain this point: Pittsburgh can still win the Big East. Getting West Virginia at home is key, with that game again going far towards determining the conference champion. In fact, it hard not to view the Panthers as the Big East favorite, what with this team’s high level of returning talent on both sides of the ball. Pitt has a Heisman-level running back; one of the best big-bodied receivers in the F.B.S.; a solid pair of bookend tackles along the offensive line; the finest defensive end duo in the Big East; a solid linebacker corps; and two returning safeties. So given all that, what does Pittsburgh have to worry about? Well, not that much — this is still a borderline Top 25 team, one that clearly stands within the top three team in the Big East. Still, the lack of a proven quarterback is a concern. So is the interior of the offensive line; the interior of the defensive line will also break in new starters, but that’s far less of a worry. The Panthers must find two new starters at cornerback: it will be enormous for this defense if Imoru can step up immediately. All told, while I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see the Panthers take the Big East, the handful of new starters and a difficult non-conference schedule will make it difficult for this team to match last season’s win total.

Dream season The Panthers lose only at Utah to open the season. Though not good enough to play for the national championship, an 11-1 finish allows Pittsburgh to return to B.C.S. play for the first time since 2004.

Nightmare season The difficult non-conference slate leaves Pittsburgh with a 2-3 record entering Big East play, and the Panthers never recover: 5-7, 3-4 in conference action.

In case you were wondering

Where do Pittsburgh fans congregate? Pittsburgh fans can find impressive recruiting coverage and message board chatter at Panther Lair and Panther Digest. For a blog’s take, visit Pitt Blather.

Up Next

Who is No. 28? In 2002, our next university landed the largest donation ever given to a public American university.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. EC says:

    Looks like Arkansas is #28….

    Paul: You just left the 1,000th comment on the site. Congrats? Anyway, Pre-Snap Read t-shirts are on the way, so you just won one. Send a size, name and mailing address to audible@presnapread.com to collect.

  2. 'Catatonic Tim says:

    The ’04 Dolphins were 1-8 when Wanny resigned.

  3. Zaboo says:

    So, instead of “the Big East being weaker than usual in 2009,” did you mean “the Big East being weak, as usual, in 2009″?

    Common mistake, really.

  4. jharris says:

    Unbiased computers would really disagree with you about the Big East being weak. Sagarin had the BE ranked 2nd last year; BCS had the BE ranked 4th. Both Sagarin and the BCS has had the BE ranked high than the B10 each of the last four years. Weak? No. Lacking a great team since their three straight BCS bowl wins? Yes.

  5. jharris says:

    Is Jabaal Sheard going to play? His arrest was one of the highlights of the off-season.

    Paul: Regardless of what we might think about the situation, there have been no signs that Sheard is going to miss any significant time. He may start the season opener on the bench as a disciplinary matter, but he’ll be a fixture at end.

  6. Zaboo says:

    Lacking premier victories in non-conference play? Check. Getting shellacked in the BCS? Check.

    Sounds like the second best conference in America to me.

  7. Jim Narby says:

    i’ll take a t-shirt too. -jim narby

  8. Jake Smith says:

    I’m going to go with Stanford at #28

  9. Zahm08 says:

    Public university, Jake. Stanford is as private as it gets.

  10. Ryan says:

    It’s Arkansas. Stanford is a private university.

  11. Jay says:

    Arkansas? $300 million?

  12. dunkles says:

    Wouldnt that be T. Boone Pickens University. The other OSU.

  13. Jake Smith says:

    Missed that key word there.

  14. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska is next. – Jim Narby

  15. M Meyer says:

    It’s Walton family money, right? You can’t expect the likes of T. Boone Pickens or Phil Knight to outcompete Wal-Mart! So, SEC fans just realize that when you shop there you’re helping to support the Razorbacks.

  16. Hoots says:

    The ‘stache will rise again!

  17. Kori says:

    I was looking at your top ten non-conference games and the Pitt vs. Utah game is on Sept. 2nd.

  18. Andy Reid says:

    Arkansas is up next — from that donation from the Sam Walton foundation for a Business School.

  19. [...] the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 29, is Pittsburgh. You can find a larger Pittsburgh preview [...]

  20. Rob says:

    Lol. Depth at WR a concern? You know nothing about Pitt football. Stick to what you know. Being a chump NYer.

  21. JS says:

    @Zaboo. You better check again….the BE has won their BCS Bowl games in 2006 beating SEC champ Georgia in Atlanta and in 2007 beating the ACC champ and then again in 2008 beating Big 12 champ Oklahoma.

    They lost last year to Florida and in 2005. That’s 3-2 over the last 5 years. How has the Big Ten done over the last 5 years?

  22. [...] New York Times’ college football the blog, The Quad/Pre-Snap Read has Pitt at 29.  There’s a decent argument that can be made that Pitt will not be good this season – [...]

  23. Rick says:

    No love for the best FB in the nation Henry Hynoski? Don’t worry about the DT’s as they are proven and Arron Donald the frosh is a monster. Hate to predict it but Pat Bostick will be the starting QB by the FIU game. Go Pitt!

  24. [...] up, the NY Times backed Pre-Snap Read ranks Pitt at #29. Why No. 29 and not, say, around No. 15, where Pittsburgh ended last season? I understand your [...]

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