2011 Season Preview: The Pittsburgh Panthers And What's Good

In the last three decades, the Pitt Panthers have been just good enough to disappoint. Never was that more true than in 2010, when missed opportunities brought about the end of the Wannstache Era. Can Todd Graham, with his fast-paced offense and (for now) undersized defense, succeed where Dave Wannstedt did not?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

They say the more you travel, the less you know. It's the curse of being curious. Well, the more I dive into team profiles, and the more I get to understanding advanced stats, the less I know about what actually constitutes a good football team.

On paper, Pittsburgh has been a good program in recent years. The Panthers have ranked 14th, 19th and 22nd in the F/+ rankings, finished near the top of the Big East, and won a combined 27 games in the last three years. They have established one of the country's more consistently strong running games and put some serious defensive playmakers on the field. They have produced some incredible NFL talent through the years...

...and yet, something has been missing. Few would call the recent product Pittsburgh has produced truly 'good'. Decent, maybe. Solid. But good? They blew multiple non-conference opportunities in recent years -- Utah, Miami and Notre Dame last year, N.C. State in 2009 -- and they have failed to actually win the BCS bowl bid from the Big East (not exactly the SEC) in the last six years.

In the three decades since Pitt emerged as a national power in the 1970s, the Panthers have rather constantly been almost good. That continued during the recently-concluded Dave Wannstedt era; from 2008-10, Wannstedt constantly put a quality product on the field, but despite a Top 15 finish in 2009, his tenure will be remembered as the same missed opportunities that have punctuated Pittsburgh's recent history.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk**: 22
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep at Utah 24-27 L 28.2 - 28.0 W
11-Sep New Hampshire
38-16 W 28.2 - 27.9 W
23-Sep Miami 3-31 L 18.8 - 33.5 L
2-Oct Florida International 44-17 W 47.0 - 23.1 W
9-Oct at Notre Dame 17-23 L 29.0 - 28.9 W
16-Oct at Syracuse 45-14 W 40.6 - 25.6 W
23-Oct Rutgers 41-21 W 42.9 - 27.3 W
30-Oct Louisville 20-3 W 24.2 - 5.3 W
11-Nov at Connecticut 28-30 L 38.3 - 30.4 W
20-Nov at South Florida 17-10 W 32.7 - 19.4 W
26-Nov West Virginia 10-35 L 30.9 - 39.8 L
4-Dec at Cincinnati 28-10 W 26.4 - 10.5 W
8-Jan vs Kentucky 27-10 W 32.8 - 22.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.3 67 19.0 15
Adj. Points Per Game 32.3 26 24.8 40

Despite what has to feel like a rather familiar sense of frustration, 2010 was perhaps the most annoying season in recent memory. The final autumn before the Fall Of The Wannstache was even more full of missed opportunity (and beautiful, beautiful snow ... and pissed off mascots) than usual. Pittsburgh came from 11 down to send a good Utah team to overtime, then lost by three. They traded blows with what turned out to be a very good Notre Dame team in South Bend, and lost by six. They headed to Storrs to take on UConn in a game that would decide the Big East title, and they lost by two. They played good enough to beat an average team in 11 of 13 games, but they went just 8-5. And suffering two home blowouts, one to a chief rival, didn't help.

In the end, Pittsburgh was just good enough to be a crushing disappointment, and higher-ups decided a new direction was needed. Away went Wannstedt, and in came Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood. It felt like a bit of a rushed hire, honestly, jumping at a man who had officially generated one good season as a head coach. Regardless, they ended up taking a mulligan whether they wanted one or not; Haywood was arrested for domestic assault, fired, and eventually replaced by Tulsa coach Todd Graham and his "high-octane" offensive attack.

The good news: Graham is more proven (and more expensive) than Haywood as a head coach, having generated three ten-win seasons in the last four years. He is bringing Texas ties to recruiting, and his style of play will force energy into a program that needed some.

The bad news: Tulsa regressed a bit as they became completely Graham's program. They ranked 54th and 39th in F/+ his first two years (2007-08) but only 86th and 60th the next two; they won 10 games with smoke, mirrors and turnovers in 2010. With a growing number of young, strong recruiters in the Big East, Graham might lack in that regard (and his early commit list for 2012 does not assuage that fear).

We will see if Graham's hire brings long-term uncertainty; but the short-term might be rather attractive with the offensive talent on hand and in a conference less accustomed to the up-tempo attack Graham wants to install.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 16 14 22
RUSHING 6 6 9 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 25 18 32 5
Standard Downs 17 25 15 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 24 15 34 52
Redzone 59 53 62
Q1 Rk 47 1st Down Rk 36
Q2 Rk 30 2nd Down Rk 10
Q3 Rk 15 3rd Down Rk 12
Q4 Rk 5

Pittsburgh's offense was a rather straight-forward, muscular attack in 2010. They hung close to the national averages in terms of run-pass ratios, they almost never strayed from the script, and it worked quite well at times. Graham's offense at Tulsa was simultaneously similar and quite different.

Tulsa's run-pass splits were virtually identical, but they ran plays at twice the pace and attempted to stay unpredictable, varying the script to fit the opponent. The result: occasionally crazy rushing numbers and occasionally crazy passing numbers.

There certainly seems to be enough diversity in talent for Graham and his unique staff to figure out ways to move the ball. Quarterback Tino Sunseri (2,572 yards, 7.4 per pass, 65% completion rate, 16 TD, 9 INT; 255 pre-sack rushing yards, +5.4 Adj. POE) looked good this spring while adapting to a higher pace, and while Jonathan Baldwin (822 yards, 15.5 per catch, 56% catch rate, 5 TD) departed for the pros, two interesting intermediate threats exist in Mike Shanahan (589 yards, 13.7 per catch, 61% catch rate) and Devin Street (318 yards, 12.7 per catch, 63% catch rate as a redshirt freshman). Depth at receiver could be an obvious concern, however -- behind these two, the third-leading returning wide receiver (punt returner Cameron Saddler) had just seven catches.

(One can perhaps see why stud fullback Henry Hynoski decided it might be a pretty good time to jump early to the pros, by the way. He was going to struggle to find a permanent role in the new offense; evidently current tight ends are a bit worried about the same thing.)

The lynchpin for the 2011 Panthers could be running back Ray Graham (922 yards, 6.2 per carry, +5.3 Adj. POE, 8 TD) who not only served as worthy understudy for NFL-bound Dion Lewis (1,061 yards, 4.8 per carry, +3.5 Adj. POE, 13 TD), but potentially surpassed him in 2010. If the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Graham can make some noise in what will likely be a run-friendly, high-pace spread, the Panthers could score a ton of points even with iffy receiver depth.

Other tidbits:

  • Graham has put together an aggressive set of offensive coaches. Receivers coach and co-coordinator Mike Norvell followed Graham from Tulsa, fellow co-coordinator Calvin Magee was Rich Rodriguez's coordinator at Michigan, and quarterbacks coach Todd Dodge was a spread architect at Southlake (TX) Carroll high school before serving as North Texas head coach. This group comes from different shades of the same style of offense, and they will either create the perfect spread or kill each other ... and I'm excited to watch either way.
  • The line is reasonably experienced. Gone are two starters -- all-conference tackle Jason Pinkston and center Alex Karabin -- but in guard-turned-tackle Lucas Nix, guard Chris Jacobson and tackle Jordan Gibbs, the Panthers return a semi-healthy 53 career starts on a line that was one of the better run-blocking units in the country last year.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 41 72 22
RUSHING 62 91 39 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 25 40 15 51
Standard Downs 29 58 12 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 74 79 73 7
Redzone 44 73 30
Q1 Rk 44 1st Down Rk 25
Q2 Rk 28 2nd Down Rk 56
Q3 Rk 30 3rd Down Rk 46
Q4 Rk 79

New defensive coordinator Keith Patterson also follows Graham from Tulsa; his Golden Hurricane defense attacked quite a bit and got to the quarterback, but they gave up quite a few big plays in the process. At first glance, it seems he might enjoy himself taking over a Panthers defense that a) also got to the quarterback quite a bit and b) did so while posting a Top 15 big-play rate against the pass. But a couple of departures and a shift in scheme might cause some growing pains. The Panthers are moving to a new, hybrid 3-4 look, and it's unclear whether the personnel really fits the move.

Pittsburgh put a Top 25 pass defense on the field in 2010 because of two major factors: a lovely pass rush led by Brandon Lindsey (41.0 tackles, 17.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF) and Jabaal Sheard (43.0 tackles, 14.5 TFL/sacks, 4 FF, 4 PBU) and a group of safeties that severely limited big plays. Sheard departs, but the bigger change for Lindsey might not be living life without Sheard; it might be adapting to the 3-4. At 250 pounds, Lindsey is not particularly big for a 3-4 end, and he will instead likely play the "PANTHER" position, a hybrid DE-OLB role. This fits with his future pro profile, but we'll see if there is a learning curve. There wasn't for Texas A&M's Von Miler, who played a similar role last year.

Meanwhile, the secondary took a pretty big hit with the loss of do-everything safety Dom DeCicco (80.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 2 FF, 2 PBU). DeCicco led the team in interceptions, registered more tackles for loss than any linebacker and had the most PIttsburghy name ever. He will be missed. There will be a lot of pressure on safeties Jarred Holley (47.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 3 PBU) and Jason Hendricks (32.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU as a redshirt freshman) to not only continue helping with big-play prevention, but to also make some plays of their own. Cornerback Antwaun Reed (34.0 tackles, 1 INT, 6 PBU) returns, though there is almost no experience beyond him and sophomore K'Waun Williams. The quality of the starting defensive backs is not terrible, but the depth is a bit frightening.

Other tidbits:

  • Considering how many plays DeCicco made (or had to make) and how Pittsburgh's overall Rushing rankings were worse than their Adj. Line Yards figures, it appears that the linebacker position was less than strong last year. All three starters return, but it remains to be seen if that's a good thing. And the move to a 3-4 -- and the subsequent extra pressure on linebackers to attack and produce -- might be problematic. Max Gruder (63.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU) was decent in the 'tackling machine' role, but 3-4 linebackers have to be able to attack, and only Tristan Roberts (32.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks) and maybe Greg Williams (54.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) showed potential in that regard last year. Williams might end up backing Brandon Lindsey up in the PANTHER position, and there is playing time available at the "SPUR" position (the hybrid OLB-S position).
  • The other position of note when switching to a 3-4: tackle. The trio of Chas Alecxth (42.5 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU), Myles Caragein (26.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks) and Aaron Donald (9.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU as a freshman) was relatively disruptive last year, but a) they still got pushed around a bit, and b) only Caragein is bigger than 280 pounds. This was a small unit for a 4-3 ... it's a really small unit for a 3-4.

Pittsburgh's 2010 Season Set to Music

Strangely, there haven't been many good songs called "Frustration." We'll go with the Styles P and The Mamas & The Papas versions to cover our bases.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 22
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 33
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +1 / +1.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (8, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -2.2

With quite a bit of experience returning to a team that has performed at a Top 25 level in recent years and recruited relatively well for a Big East team, Pittsburgh is going to be projected quite high in this year's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011. And with their offensive potential, they might live up to the projections. But the defense concerns me. They do not appear built for a smooth transition to the 3-4, with the shift in personnel placing extra emphasis on last year's weakest unit (linebacker) and turning a somewhat light line into a really light line. If the front seven holds up, and if the secondary avoids injury, then Pittsburgh could be outstanding in 2011. But as I've said before, give me two if's, and I can make just about any team really good.

The schedule is both encouraging and difficult. Of the ten BCS conference teams on the slate, six come to Heinz Field, which is good. The Panthers should certainly be able to sell tickets for a home lineup of Notre Dame, South Florida, Utah, UConn, Cincinnati and Syracuse. (They also host Buffalo and Maine, giving them a semi-obscene eight home games in all.) But with trips to Iowa, Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia, it is difficult to determine Pittsburgh's ceiling. (Well, it's always difficult to determine their ceiling.) If they truly are a Top 20 team, then just about every game but @WVU is winnable ... but if they are no better at taking advantage of opportunity in 2010, then they could sink as low as 6-6 or 7-5. This should be a solid team, but the if's involved make this one of the shakier projections you will find in the upcoming Football Outsiders Top 25.

Then again, if the Pirates can find themselves in first place on July 20, then the Panthers can make a nice run, eh?

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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