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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. 34: Pittsburgh

A brief timeline. On Dec. 4, Pittsburgh ends the regular season with a win over Cincinnati. On Dec. 7, athletic director Steve Pederson fires Dave Wannstedt after six years, 42 wins and the program’s best three-year stretch in three decades. On Dec. 16, after a week of hand-wringing over the Pederson-led coaching search, Pittsburgh hired former Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood. On Dec. 31, Haywood was arrested for alleged domestic abuse. On Jan. 1, Pittsburgh fired Haywood. Haywood lasted 16 days, which is 10 days longer than the Six-Day War but still one of the shortest tenures in F.B.S. history. Cue the hand-wringing, round two. On Jan. 11, Pittsburgh hired Tulsa’s Todd Graham, ending a coaching search that should have never occurred in the first place. If it was going to occur, however, at least the Panthers made the most of their second chance.

Conference
Big East

Location
Pittsburgh

Nickname
Panthers

Returning starters
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 29

2010 record
(8-5, 5-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 40

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Buffalo
  • Sept. 10
    Maine
  • Sept. 17
    at Iowa
  • Sept. 24
    Notre Dane
  • Sept. 29
    U.S.F.
  • Oct. 8
    at Rutgers
  • Oct. 15
    Utah
  • Oct. 26
    Connecticut
  • Nov. 5
    Cincinnati
  • Nov. 12
    at Louisville
  • Nov. 25
    at West Virginia
  • Dec. 3
    Syracuse

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell So Pittsburgh was still pretty good, at least by the standards governed by the laws of reason. Even if you consider last year’s Panthers a disappointment, acknowledge the fact that the 27 wins over three years was the program’s finest stretch play of in three decades. The one man who makes the decisions, however, felt otherwise: athletic director Steve Pederson used Pittsburgh’s three-game slide in the win column as rationale for dismissing Wannstedt, who seemed more than happy to spend the remainder of his coaching career at his alma mater. Was Wannstedt the best coach in the country, let alone the Big East? Nope. Was he a good coach, one who would at least have the Panthers competing for a B.C.S. berth each season? I think so. But last year was a bit disappointing, to be honest.

High point A 45-14 win at Syracuse on Oct. 16, a victory that — at the time — seemed to contain a bold statement: Pittsburgh is the best team in the Big East. It didn’t last, but the win over the Orange stood as the Pittsburgh’s finest of the conference season. Pittsburgh played inspired football in its bowl win over Kentucky, holding the Wildcats to only 10 points in one-sided victory.

Low point On the day after Thanksgiving, Pittsburgh suffered the loss that cost Wannstedt his job. It’s one thing to lose by 25 points to rival West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl; it’s quite another to do so at home, as the Panthers did in late November.

Tidbit Pittsburgh’s 27 wins since 2008 is the third-most over a three-year, stand-alone span — meaning no overlaps — in program history. The Panthers won 33 games under Jackie Sherrill from 1979-81, going 11-1 each year; and won 29 from 1975-77 under Johnny Majors, going a perfect 12-0 during a national title-winning 1976 season. There have been better three-year spans, such as Pittsburgh’s 26-0 mark under Pop Warner from 1915-17, but in terms of wins, Wannstedt was doing better than Walt Harris, Johnny Majors (Part II), Paul Hackett, Mike Gottfried and Foge Fazio, his predecessors over the 25 years between his hire and Sherrill’s departure for Texas A&M.

Tidbit (SEC edition) Does any team outside the South dominate the SEC quite like Pittsburgh? After last year’s bowl win over Kentucky, the Panthers are 9-1-2 all-time against college football’s premier conference, and yes, ignore the fact that the remaining eight victories came before Steve Spurrier was coaching at Duke, let alone Florida. The only SEC program to beat Pittsburgh was South Carolina, which did so in 1984, though the Panthers hold a 3-1 edge over the Gamecocks. Pitt is 0-0-1 against Florida, tying the Gators in 1977; 3-0-1 against Georgia; and 2-0 against Tennessee.

Former players in the N.F.L.

27 WR Jonathan Baldwin (Kansas City), CB Aaron Berry (Detroit), TE Nate Byham (San Francisco), CB Kennard Cox (Seattle), OG C.J. Davis (Carolina), S Dom DeCicco (Chicaco), WR Dorin Dickerson (Houston), DT Rashaad Duncan (Washington), WR Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona), LB Gerald Hayes (Arizona), FB Henry Hynoski (New York Giants), P Andy Lee (San Francisco), RB Dion Lewis (Philadelphia), OG John Malecki (Tampa Bay), RB LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia), C Mike McGlynn (Philadelphia), LB Scott McKillop (San Francisco), OT Jeff Otah (Carolina), QB Tyler Palko (Kansas City), OT Jason Pinkston (Cleveland), FB Lousaka Polite (Miami), CB Darrelle Revis (New York Jets), DE Greg Romeus (New Orleans), DE Jabaal Sheard (Cleveland), CB Shawntae Spencer (San Francisco), RB LaRod Stephens-Howling (Arizona), TE Kris Wilson (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

Dallas Cowboys running backs
1. Emmitt Smith (1990-2002).
2. Tony Dorsett (1977-87).
3. Don Perkins (1961-68).
4. Walt Garrison (1966-74).
5. Marion Barber (2005-10).

Coaching

Todd Graham (East Central University ‘87), entering his first season. Graham compiled a 36-17 mark over four seasons at Tulsa, winning at least 10 games three times and playing for the Conference USA title twice, in 2007 and 2008. His Golden Hurricane took a nice step forward last fall after a 5-7 finish in 2009, Graham’s first losing record over a coaching career that includes a single season, 2006, at Rice. That year couldn’t have gone much better: the Owls went 7-6, earning the program’s first bowl bid in 45 years. A 10-win 2007 campaign marked a triumphant return to Tulsa for Graham, who served as Steve Kragthorpe’s assistant head coach and defensive coordinator from 2003-5. The Golden Hurricane defense made a distinct improvement in each of Graham’s seasons, improving from 109th nationally in total defense in 2002 to 60th in 2003 and 40th in his final season. The pass defense ranked among the top 25 each campaign, perhaps a result of Graham’s experience as a two-time all-N.A.I.A. defensive back at East Central University in the mid-1980s. Before arriving in Tulsa in 2003, Graham coached under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia from 2001-2, first as linebackers coach, before taking on the co-defensive coordinator job his second season. He was a vital part of a 9-4 2002 season, the first of Rodriguez’s five straight seasons of tremendous play with the Mountaineers. I wrote heading into last summer that despite a slide in 2009, Graham would be an intriguing candidate for many B.C.S. conference openings if he could lift Tulsa back into the upper echelon of Conference USA. He did just that, and after Pittsburgh reopened its job search following Haywood’s dismissal, Graham became a solid choice.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Graham’s staff has a Tulsa, Michigan and Texas feel. He brought offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich, co-offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson and co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Paul Randolph along for the ride from Tulsa. He added Todd Dodge, a knowledgeable spread mind who was dismissed at North Texas midway through last season. Then there’s this strange addition of several former Rich Rodriguez assistants at Michigan: tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Tony Dews, secondary coach Tony Gibson and co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Calvin Magee. Almost makes outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Randall McCray, formerly of Middle Tennessee State, feel like the odd man out.

Players to watch

The largest beneficiary of the change in offensive philosophy might not be starting quarterback Tino Sunseri, believe it or not, though Sunseri surely thanked his lucky stars the day he traded in ho-hum for no-huddle. As at Tulsa, Graham wants to mix things up offensively, balancing a potent passing game with one of the nation’s most productive running games — as fast as possible, mind you, in an out of the huddle, running three plays for every two Pitt ran a year ago. So you can see why Pitt’s excited, and you can see why Sunseri is very excited.

To answer the statement above, the largest beneficiary of the system change is Pittsburgh itself, of course, with a bored-to-tears fan base next in line. In terms of an individual or a position, I’m of mind to say that Ray Graham and Zach Brown will find life significantly easier than in the past. That’s because there will be less pounding, more open space for this pair; that’s the goal, at least. Graham officially takes over the lead back job from the since-departed Dion Lewis, who was not the same back in 2010 as he was in a breakout 2009 season. Graham was the team’s best back, plain and simple: he was extremely productive, finishing the year with 922 yards rushing on a team-best 6.2 yards per carry. And he was missed when limited by injury, as illustrated during Pitt’s season-opening loss to Utah. Graham is a wonderful fit in this system, and should have a monster year. A recent transfer from Wisconsin, Brown will provide experience to a backfield that seemed, prior to his arrival, to be lacking depth.

Now, back to Sunseri. He wasn’t great as a first-year starter, stumbling out of the gates a bit against Utah and struggling down the stretch, but I can’t imagine Pittsburgh going anywhere else under center. Could the Panthers and Graham have a better fit for this system? Yes, and they will soon enough. For now, however, Pitt should take confidence in Sunseri’s confidence; he’s a senior with a year of experience under his belt, even if he was learning the offense from scratch during the spring. A year ago, Sunseri threw for 2,557 and 16 scores against 9 picks while completing 64.5 percent of his attempts — the latter total indicates his nice touch on intermediate routes, though Graham will want more from Sunseri on the deep ball. Look for Pitt to add a quarterback better suited for this attack — one with better running ability — but for now, the Panthers could do far worse than Sunseri.

The offensive needs to replace a pair of starters in Alex Karabin and Jason Pinkston, the latter one of the Big East’s best left tackles. All eyes are on Pittsburgh’s situation at tackle, therefore, though the Panthers have another very good one on the right side in senior Lucas Nix, a definite all-Big East selection. He’s one of four senior starters up front, three of whom ended last season in the starting lineup: one is left tackle Jordan Gibbs, last year’s starter for much of the year at right tackle, while Chris Jacobson moves inside from left guard to center, replacing Karabin. The fourth senior is Greg Gaskins, a part-time starter last fall who makes the transition from the right side to left guard, filling Jacobson’s former spot. That leaves only right guard, a role currently inhabited by sophomore Cory King, though I suppose Ryan Turnley could step in if needed.

The Panthers need to replace Jon Baldwin, who left for the N.F.L. a year ahead of schedule, but that’s not a huge concern. It’s a concern, mind you, but Pitt can balance his departure with a pair of talented, lanky receivers in Mike Shanahan (43 catches for 589 yards) and Devin Street (25 for 318, 2 scores). Baldwin made the big plays, but it’s not a stretch to say that Shanahan was Pitt’s most consistent receiver last fall; his numbers will take a serious jump in this system if Graham and his offensive staff can fit a square peg — Sunseri — into a round hole. Street is one of several receivers whose roles will increase exponentially, not just because of Baldwin’s departure but also because this new offense will have at least three receivers on the field at all times. Hopes are high that junior Cameron Saddler can make an impact despite missing time during the spring, as he’s the sort of slighter, speedy, tough-to-catch receiver this offense covets. Proven depth is a real issue at receiver, as the Panthers will at least two or three yet-untested options to step up and fill out this depth chart. Graham didn’t go after receivers very much during this latest recruiting cycle, though one signing, Darius Patton, may factor into the mix immediately; look for Pittsburgh to go after receivers in 2012. Junior Hubie Graham is the front-runner for the H-back spot used to great effect by this offense at Tulsa.

As on the offensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh will aim to get quicker on defense. This is done in two ways — more than two, but here’s the primary pair: one, by getting faster players on the field, which is a no-brainer; and two, by installing a 3-4 base defense with a hybrid linebacker-end and a hybrid safety-linebacker, with, in a perfect world, potential game-changers at both spots. Finding that star hybrid linebacker-end was the easiest decision Graham and company had to make all spring.

Looking for a dark horse national award-winner come December? Try Brandon Lindsay (51 tackles, 17.5 for loss, 10 sacks), who may not be coming in under the radar but remains far too unknown outside the Big East. He won’t put his hand in the dirt as often in 2011, rather standing up in that hybrid role, but don’t think for a second that Lindsay won’t remain one of the most productive pass rushers in college football. He’ll do that and more, perhaps, showing his speed and athleticism in coverage and his strength against the run in his new role. Lindsay’s a clear candidate for all-American honors in 2011. For now, I’m not sure whether to call him an end or a linebacker, so I’m dumping him in with the linebackers just to be safe — and, to be honest, because I’m making the defensive line the position to watch. But he’s an end and a linebacker, all in one, and a great player to boot.

Changes will be felt at linebacker, where only one returning contributor, weak side linebacker Max Gruder (84 tackles), is ensure of retaining his starting role. But Pitt does return senior Greg Williams (64 tackles, 5.5 for loss), and while sophomore Bryan Murphy fared during the spring I don’t think he’ll unseat Williams in 2011. Shane Gordon will be an important piece of the puzzle, either as a starter or behind senior Tristan Roberts, another vital cog thanks to his ability to play either on the weak or the strong side. Then there’s the hybrid safety-linebacker — the spur, in Pitt’s new parlance — which will ask for speed, speed and more speed. There’s a whole crop of youngsters fighting it out for that role, a few making the move from safety and others who might have been phased out of the previous system thanks to a lack of size. The options include sophomore Kevin Adams and redshirt freshmen Eric Williams and Todd Adams, with the latter back to full health after missing last season with a knee injury.

Junior free safety Jarred Holley is the star of the secondary: that’s what 54 tackles and a team-best five picks will do, in addition to earning Holley all-Big East accolades. He headlines a defensive backfield that’s heavy on experience, particularly at cornerback. Pitt has as many as five options to work with to find a starting pairing, beginning with returning starter Antwuan Reed (40 tackles, 1 interception). He’s locked into a starting role, with Buddy Jackson, Saheed Imoru and K’Waun Williams among those battling for the second starting spot. The competition will be great for this secondary. Keep an eye on sophomore Jason Hendricks at bandit safety, a position that equates to strong safety in last year’s defense. He started five times as a freshman.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line The switch to the 3-4 will have a huge impact up front, as returning linemen transition to new roles and, by and large, the line takes on entirely new responsibilities. Some things won’t change: the ends will still be asked to get to the quarterback, the interior tackle to hold up against the run, but the line as a whole will be more substance, less flash. It’s a nice time to make the move, seeing that Pittsburgh must replace a pair of N.F.L.-caliber ends in Greg Romeus — though he barely played in 2010 — and Jabaal Sheard. Lindsay is one returning starter who will inhabit a new role, as noted. He’ll spend some time with his hand on the ground, I’d think but Lindsay’s hybrid role will seem him standing up as an outside linebacker of sorts more often than not. But he’ll still be a major presence in the pass rush, especially on third down. And it says much about what Pittsburgh has up front that there is no lack of talent even with Romeus and Sheard out of the picture and Lindsay transitioning to a new role. The interior of the line is particularly strong: Pittsburgh brings back Myles Caragein (30 tackles, 4.5 for loss) and Chas Alecxih (57 tackles, 7.5 sacks), two seniors with experience, talent and the potential for even bigger things in 2011 — especially Alecxih, a former walk-on whose on-field development has been one of the best stories inside the program over the last few years. Depth along the interior of the line comes from a few intriguing youngsters, like Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Tyrone Ezell. Converted tackle Alex Donald has great size to play at 3-4 end, and while only a sophomore he should be considered the favorite to round out the starting lineup. He’s not the only option, however. Pitt could go with senior Anthony Hargrove, another big-bodied end, or perhaps another sophomore, T.J. Clemmings — he’s enormous, with the size to move inside on passing downs. There’s a ton of depth here, not to mention a promising blend of experienced seniors and talented underclassmen. This line is one to watch.

Game(s) to watch

A number of marquee games outside of Big East play. Iowa comes on the road, making that game a tough one for the Panthers, but Notre Dame and Utah come to Heinz Field. Perhaps Todd Graham can lead Pitt into West Virginia and win by 25 points. Which offense will run more plays that Friday, Holgorsen’s Mountaineers or Graham’s Panthers?

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell You like a lot about Pittsburgh. First and foremost, you like the Graham hire despite the fact that he wasn’t Pederson’s top choice; in fact, you may like him all the more because he wasn’t Pederson’s hand-picked successor for Wannstedt, but rather the pick after his first pick. Bear with me: Pederson does many things well, but hiring football coaches doesn’t seem to be one of them. So, in a strange way, perhaps the fact that Haywood flamed out so quickly and so memorably may end up being the best thing that could have happened to this program — outside of retaining Wannstedt in the first place, I should add. Back to this specific team: you like the backfield, the offensive line and the receiver corps’ starting pair, though depth at the position is a concern. You love Lindsay and the defensive line, both in terms of its ability to get to the quarterback, its solid interior and very intriguing depth. So there’s plenty to like, and Pittsburgh is nipping at West Virginia’s heels as we prepare for the Big East in 2011. What’s holding the Panthers back? Not that much, really, but enough to make you think twice about making this team the conference favorite heading into September. Sunseri is not built for this system, to be blunt, and while he has nice experience the offense won’t take off until Graham finds a quarterback better suited for running this attack. The back seven of the defense isn’t great, though we should include Lindsay as a piece of the linebacker corps, at least in part. And you worry about whether this team can fit Graham’s philosophy on each side of the ball: this team is built for a pro-style, 4-3 system, so look for some growing pains this fall. But there are seniors to help bridge the learning curve, which will help, and the program has a fine coach in Graham to help seal things together throughout the season. Pittsburgh’s going to be good, like 8-4 good, but I think it’ll take a year to get everything in order.

Dream season The offense clicks in September and only improves as the season moves on, leading the Panthers to a 10-2 finish and a Big East title.

Nightmare season It takes Graham and the new staff one year to get everything locked into place. Pittsburgh will be stronger in 2012, but this fall isn’t pretty: 4-8, 2-5 in the Big East.

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 BlatherCardiac Hill and Pitt Script Blog.

Word Count

Through 87 teams 264,945.

Up Next

Who is No. 33? Casually mentioning tomorrow’s school in conversation might befuddle the non-college football fans among us, who might confuse the institution with a maximum security prison, a playwright, a town in New Hampshire or a possibly fictitious village mentioned by an 18th century poet.

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

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Comments

  1. Joel says:

    Quite the fall from National Champs to #33

  2. DaUUU!!!!!!!!!!! says:

    Is the answer to the question the Auburn Tigers. There is a maximum security prison in New York and there is a town with the same name in New Hampshire.

  3. Mano Cornuda says:

    Auburn is next.

  4. Eksynyt says:

    Wow, I can’t believe Oregon lost to Auburn in the natty…and that Auburn is going to take this big a tumble in the rankings.

  5. Charlie says:

    Marion Barber over the great Robert Newhouse? Heresy.

  6. Ezra says:

    I bet Auburn ends the season ranked lower than #33.

    Also, why do you call the hirings of the Tonys Gibson and Dews, and Calvin Magee strange? All of them coached at WVU at the same time Graham did. He was going with those he knew, and who know local recruiting– it seems smart.

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