Tuesday, August 25, 2009

CFI Countdown: #22 Pittsburgh Panthers

2008 Record: 9-4 (Big East: 5-2)
Bowl Game: Lost Sun Bowl to Oregon St. 3-0
Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Stadium: Heinz Field (65,050)
Head Coach: Dave Wannstedt
Overall: 25-23 (5th season)
@ Pittsburgh: 25-23 (5th season)
Link to Pitt Football Page

After three very disappointing non-bowl seasons to begin the Dave Wannstedt era, the Panthers made their first bowl since the 2004 season. Now it’s time to win one (last bowl win came in 2002) and who knows…maybe even a conference crown. Pittsburgh has one Big East title (shared in 2004) since joining the conference in 1993 and has not reached double figures in victories since 1981, when they rolled off the third of three straight 11-1 seasons.

When the Panthers Have the Ball

Offensive Coordinator: Frank Cignetti, Jr. (1st season)
Scheme: Pro Style
Starters Returning: Seven
Key Losses: RB LeSean McCoy, WR Derek Kinder, OG C. J. Davis, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, FB Conredge Collins

Senior Bill Stull and junior Pat Bostick have taken most of the reps at quarterback the past two seasons. Neither has played well, much less taken hold of the job when the opportunity has presented itself. Stull appears to be the starter heading into 2009 and is respected for his leadership and intangibles. Bostick is considered the more physically gifted of the two, but has been shaky in the decision-making department. Regardless of who wins the job, he would be wise to throw the ball up to 6’ 5” sophomore Jonathan Baldwin as much as possible. They also have excellent depth at tight end in seniors Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson, both capable contributors in the passing game. What the Panthers hope to replicate is the production they received from tailback LeSean “Shady” McCoy. Their most talented runners are a pair of freshmen, Dion Lewis and Chris Burns. Four starters return to what should be a solid offensive line, led by left tackle Jason Pinkston. If the line and the offense as a whole are to take the next step, two highly-touted sophomores will need to step up—Lucas Nix, who is expected to start at right tackle, and Chris Jacobson, who is competing for playing time at guard.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) WR Jonathan Baldwin (SO), 2) TE Nate Byham (SR), 3) OT Jason Pinkston (JR)

When the Other Team Has the Ball

Defensive Coordinator: Phil Bennett (2nd season)
Scheme: Multiple 4-3
Starters Returning: Seven
Key Losses: LB Scott McKillop, FS Eric Thatcher, LB Austin Ransom, DT Rashaad Duncan

It all starts up front for the Panthers defensively. Defensive end Greg Romeus showed flashes as a sophomore and is poised to break out this season using his speed and athleticism to get into the backfield. He also knows how to use his length—he blocked three of Pitt’s 10 blocked kicks. On the opposite side Jabaal Sheard got his hands on seven passes, making his share of impact plays. Keeping defenses honest will be senior tackle Mick Williams who can be a force in his own right. They must replace two starters at the next level, including defensive leader Scott McKillop, but in sophomore SAM Greg Williams, they add another dynamic piece to their front seven. Both starting corners are back, including senior Aaron Berry, who will make opposing quarterbacks think twice about throwing his way. As a unit, the secondary recorded 16 interceptions in 2008 and should be among the best in the country once again.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) DE Greg Romeus (JR), 2) CB Aaron Berry (SR), 3) LB Greg Williams (SO)

The Schedule

With Youngstown St., Buffalo (on the road), and Navy to kick off the schedule, the Panthers face a pair of 2008 bowl teams but should get off to a quick start. A game to circle is their trip to Raleigh to face the Wolfpack—a win there and Pitt could be headed towards a special season. They host Notre Dame in an out of conference game as well. As for the Big East race, they play South Florida and defending champ Cincinnati at home, with visits to Rutgers and border rival West Virginia. They play the Bearcats and Mountaineers in the final two weeks of the season in contests that could decide the conference.

Pivotal Point

It begins and ends with their quarterback play. Last season as a group they combined for 2,356 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, while completing just 55.9 percent of their passes. That inaccuracy would begin to explain how a nine-win team that finished second in their conference was held scoreless in their bowl game. As a freshman in 2007, Bostick was the primary starter but was on shaky ground most of the way, throwing eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Stull stepped in last season and was not much better—throwing nine scoring strikes and 10 interceptions (Bostick’s 2008 ratio was one-to-four). Slightly above average play would go a long way.

CFI Final Analysis

Look for the 2009 Panthers to win nine or even 10 games, win the Big East conference, and make their second trip to a BCS Bowl. It will not only be the school’s best season under Coach Wannstedt—an alum who was brought here to bring back the glory days—but maybe their best season in over 25 years. They’re not there yet, but they have turned the corner in Western Pennsylvania.

College Football Insiders Top 25 Countdown:
The Next 25 (26-50) Plus 18 Bowl Teams
#25 West Virginia Mounainteers
#24 Tennessee Volunteers
#23 Clemson Tigers

Contact Daniel Mogollon via email dan@collegefootballinsiders.com

Photo Credit: University of Pittsburgh