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1. The city of Pittsburgh is awesome
I've been attached to the city of Pittsburgh since I randomly (and foolishly) adopted the Pirates in the late-1980s because I loved the Bonds-Van Slyke-Bonilla outfield. I discovered the wonder that is Primanti Bros. sandwiches (and, as part of Pittsburgh initiation, got lost in the ridiculous downtown system of highways) in 1999, attended my first (and last) Pirates game at Three Rivers Stadium in 2000, knocked out trips to eight Strip District bars (and Primanti's) in about 12 hours during a one-day visit in 2001, and attended my first Pirates game at PNC Park in 2002. The city is staid and scenic, innovative (in ways that Detroit is not) and awash in tradition. It is one of America's most underrated cities, and to top it off, the University of Pittsburgh's football program just scored some major points with me by naming its practice fields after the late Beano Cook. (Side note: I also love Beano Cook.)
In other words, I am sentimental toward the city and most things associated with it. But I promise you, I haven't put a pro-Pittsburgh add-on in my numbers. There is no "If school's name starts with 'Pit,' add 10 percent to all of their totals" qualifier. That Pitt ranked 15th in the F/+ rankings in 2008, 12th in 2009, and 24th in 2010, and that the Panthers are projected a healthy 35th and 8-4 in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 have nothing to do with how beautiful PNC Park is, I promise.
2. Continuity is stronger than it probably should be
Despite two straight 6-7 records, Pittsburgh's five-year ratings are strong, powered in part by an underrated 2008-10 run but also by the fact that the Panthers, while not great, were not that bad in 2011-12, clocking in at 47th and 51st, respectively. Considering the turmoil on the sidelines, that's impressive.
- Dave Wannstedt -- who, himself, may have been a bit underrated at Pitt considering he engineered three straight top-25 performances (according to F/+) and two of only three nine-win seasons at the school in the last three decades -- was let go at the end of 2010. Phil Bennett was the interim coach in the 2010 BBVA Compass Bowl.
- Miami (Ohio)'s Mike Haywood was hired in December 2010, then fired two weeks later after a domestic violence arrest. (The charges were later dismissed.)
- Tulsa's Todd Graham took over in 2011, then left for Arizona State after a single 6-6 season. Keith Patterson was the interim coach in the 2011 BBVA Compass Bowl.
- Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst then took over. Including interims, he was the sixth person to hold the position of "Pittsburgh head coach" over a span of 16 games. And he was still the head coach in the 2012 BBVA Compass Bowl!
Pitt now moves to the ACC perhaps in better shape than we think. Perceptions were already less positive than reality before Wannstedt left. At 9-4, Pitt indeed ranked 15th in F/+ in 2008, ahead of 10-3 Oregon and 10-3 Georgia. At 10-3, Pitt indeed ranked 12th in F/+ in 2009, ahead of 10-3 Oregon, 10-3 Wisconsin, and a 12-1 Cincinnati team that barely beat the Panthers in a late-season classic. And in 2010, when Wannstedt was let go, Pitt still ranked 24th in F/+, ahead of 11-2 Michigan State and 13-1 Nevada. The Panthers fell victim to a 1-3 record in one-possession games that year but were still competitive and interesting (well, maybe not aesthetically, but you know what I mean) overall. And at the very least, the Panthers maintained a top-50 level recently.
Heading into the first Year 2 of a Pitt coach's tenure since 2006, Pitt might once again be in better shape than we thought. An experienced defense could offset a step backwards on offense, and while 35th is indeed a little aggressive for my tastes, anything below about 50th is probably too conservative.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 51|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Youngstown State||17-31||L||31.0 - 36.4||L|
|6-Sep||at Cincinnati||10-34||L||30.2 - 30.0||W|
|15-Sep||Virginia Tech||35-17||W||44.8 - 32.2||W|
|22-Sep||Gardner-Webb||55-10||W||35.2 - 17.5||W|
|5-Oct||at Syracuse||13-14||L||22.3 - 22.2||W|
|13-Oct||Louisville||35-45||L||33.6 - 39.6||L|
|20-Oct||at Buffalo||20-6||W||23.4 - 21.2||W|
|27-Oct||Temple||47-17||W||42.1 - 24.0||W|
|3-Nov||at Notre Dame||26-29||L||24.7 - 25.4||L|
|9-Nov||at Connecticut||17-24||L||39.1 - 36.1||W|
|24-Nov||Rutgers||27-6||W||35.9 - 14.4||W|
|1-Dec||at South Florida||27-3||W||24.6 - 4.1||W|
|5-Jan||vs. Ole Miss||17-38||L||15.1 - 24.1||L|
|Points Per Game||26.6||77||21.1||23|
|Adj. Points Per Game||30.9||44||25.2||40|
3. And then the defense clicked
One reason for optimism in 2013: This defense that will have to pick up the slack for the offense this fall, already got used to doing so over the last couple of months of the season. After allowing an unacceptable 5.4 yards per play to Youngstown State in the shocking season opener, then allowing 7.9 to Cincinnati and 5.7 to Virginia Tech (almost as bad as allowing 5.4 to YSU), the defense began to figure things out, only twice playing at a below average level after September 15.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 3 games): Pitt 35.3, Opponent 32.9 (plus-2.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 10 games): Pitt 29.6, Opponent 22.9 (plus-6.7)
The Panthers held mostly steady against decent offenses (Notre Dame averaged 5.0 per play) and dominated some lesser ones (Rutgers averaged 3.3, USF 2.4); the defense even did its job in the bowl loss versus Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to just 4.5. When Pitt struggled late, it was usually because of an offense that is getting a forced makeover this fall.
|Q1 Rk||30||1st Down Rk||41|
|Q2 Rk||37||2nd Down Rk||46|
|Q3 Rk||71||3rd Down Rk||29|
4. Not exactly run-first
Both Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph were Wisconsin employees before the move to Western Pennsylvania. Hell, quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger is a former Wisconsin quarterback. And while Pitt produced both Dan Marino and Larry Fitzgerald, it's known as much or more for running than passing. With Ray Graham and Rushel Shell in the backfield, signs pointed to a run-first attack in 2012. But the running game was only mediocre, and either by design or necessity, the Panthers actually hovered pretty close to the national averages, running 64 percent of the time on standard downs (four percent above the national average) but passing 29 percent on passing downs (nearly five percent below the average). And when there was magic (not really a frequent occurrence), it was just as likely to happen on second- or third-and-long as on run-friendly downs.
With Graham and Shell, quarterback Tino Sunseri, and three of the top four from the receiving corps gone, Pitt will have no choice but to go for a clean start and an opportunity to install whatever identity it these coaches want to install; what is that?
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Trey Anderson||6'0, 195||Jr.||** (5.1)||2||2||53||100.0%||0||0||0||0.0%||26.5|
|6'5, 230||Sr.||**** (5.9)||43||83||521||51.8%||2||3||14||14.4%||4.4|
|Chad Voytik||6'1, 210||RSFr.||**** (5.9)|
|Tra'Von Chapman||6'2, 200||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
5. Tino Sunseri got hit a lot
Tino Sunseri was the perfect exemplification of Pitt as a whole: more skilled than you probably think, with very obvious, blatant flaws. In 2012, Sunseri completed almost two-thirds of his passes and threw seven times more touchdowns than interceptions. That's fantastic by any standard, and it came despite all of the system changes that he endured in his sophomore and junior seasons.
But wow, did he take sacks. He got better -- he took an incredible 60 sacks in 2011 with a sack rate of 13.5 percent -- but he still hung in the pocket to a fault, patient to a degree of insanity. But the good outweighed the bad in the Pitt passing game; the Panthers ranked a respectable 41st in Passing S&P+, and on passing downs that patience paid off. There was method behind Sunseri's mannequin-esque qualities, and he will be more difficult to replace than we might assume.
That said, Pitt has some intriguing candidates, don't they? Rutgers transfer Tom Savage was good enough to play as a true freshman in New Jersey, though he struggled over time, playing poorly as a sophomore in 2010 and losing his job in 2011. But he had a strong pedigree at one point, and he appears to be holding off four-star redshirt freshman Chad Voytik for now. If Tra'von Chapman remains with the team after some recent issues, he could be an interesting candidate in the future.
|Isaac Bennett||RB||5'11, 205||Jr.||** (5.4)||29||141||4.9||3.9||3||+0.0|
|Malcolm Crockett||RB||5'10, 205||So.||*** (5.5)||12||50||4.2||2.8||0||-2.2|
|James Conner||RB||6'2, 230||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Devin Street||WR||6'4, 195||Sr.||** (5.4)||101||73||975||72.3%||9.7||26.4%||63.4%||9.7||138.7|
|J.P. Holtz||TE||6'4, 245||So.||*** (5.6)||16||13||173||81.3%||10.8||4.2%||87.5%||14.6||24.6|
|Isaac Bennett||RB||5'11, 205||Jr.||** (5.4)||15||8||78||53.3%||5.2||3.9%||46.7%||4.9||11.1|
|Ed Tinker||WR||6'2, 195||Sr.||** (5.4)||12||5||68||41.7%||5.7||3.1%||33.3%||5.3||9.7|
|Ronald Jones||WR||5'8, 170||Jr.||** (5.4)||12||7||66||58.3%||5.5||3.1%||75.0%||4.7||9.4|
|TE||6'2, 230||Jr.||*** (5.5)||2||2||45||100.0%||22.5||0.6%||0.0%||0.0||0.0|
|Kevin Weatherspoon||WR||5'10, 175||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Chris Wuestner||WR||6'2, 205||RSFr.||NR|
|Tyler Boyd||WR||6'2, 185||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Scott Orndoff||TE||6'5, 255||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
6. The fleecing of the skill positions
I can talk all I want about how Pitt has perhaps been better than you thought over the past few years, but it's hard to get too excited about the offensive two-deep this time around. There are a lot of new pieces playing major roles. The Panthers do still have Devin Street, and that's a very good thing -- he caught a combined 21 passes for 241 yards against Syracuse and Louisville, then caught six for 140 against Temple. He is a legitimately solid No. 1 receiver who averaged nearly 10.0 yards per target last season.
The problem comes in everything after Street. The No. 2 and No. 3 wideouts are gone, as is tight end Drew Carswell. Sophomore tight end J.P. Holtz was excellent in limited opportunities last year, and junior tight end and Wisconsin transfer Manasseh Garner joins the team as well, so that's something. But returning wide receivers not named Street combined to catch just 12 of 24 passes for 134 yards (fewer than Street had vs. Temple) last year. There is potential in players like true freshman Tyler Boyd, but you'd like to have a few more proven quantities heading into the fall.
And of course, this says nothing of a running game that must replace 28 carries per game in the backfield and an all-Big East center up front. Ray Graham graduated, and star freshman Rushel Shell transferred, changed his mind, and ended up at a (former) rival school anyway. Shell was a four-star recruit, and he was certainly fine last year, but he was hardly irreplaceable. Isaac Bennett and Malcolm Crockett have both had their moments in camp, but again, they have proven almost nothing on the field. They'll be running behind a line that does return four players with starting experience (54 career starts) but was only average last year and loses center Ryan Turnley.
|Ryan Turnley||C||26 career starts; 2012 2nd All-Big East|
|Cory King||LG||6'6, 325||Sr.||*** (5.5)||18 career starts|
|Ryan Schlieper||RG||6'5, 310||Sr.||*** (5.5)||16 career starts|
|Chris Jacobson||LG||13 career starts|
|Matt Rotheram||RG||6'6, 340||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13 career starts|
|Juantez Hollins||LT||6'5, 330||Sr.||*** (5.5)||7 career starts|
|Arthur Doakes||RG||5 career starts|
|Shane Johnson||LG||6'5, 330||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|T.J. Clemmings||RT||6'6, 305||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|Artie Rowell||C||6'2, 305||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Adam Bisnowaty||LT||6'6, 300||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Gabe Roberts||C||6'5, 305||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|John Guy||RT||6'7, 285||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Dorian Johnson||OL||6'5, 290||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Q1 Rk||95||1st Down Rk||45|
|Q2 Rk||31||2nd Down Rk||24|
|Q3 Rk||40||3rd Down Rk||90|
7. Bend … bend … bend…
Pitt's defense was nothing if not flexible last year. After the aforementioned early struggles, the Panthers rounded into shape as a bend-don't-break outfit, minimizing big plays and closing out drives well on passing downs despite a mediocre pass rush. They were good at taking advantage of opponent mistakes, and in college football, offenses tend to make a few mistakes.
Depending on the status of its leading returning linebacker, Pitt should return enough talent to sustain most of its second-half gains from last year. The secondary probably won't be nearly as lucky in the hands department (Jason Hendricks and K'Waun Williams picked off 10 of 15 defensed passes, with is unsustainably high) but should remain interesting and aggressive. And the Panthers still have a star at tackle.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Aaron Donald||DT||6'0, 285||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12||53.0||7.6%||18.5||5.5||0||2||1||0|
|Tyrone Ezell||NT||6'4, 305||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12||28.0||4.0%||7||3.5||0||1||0||0|
|Bryan Murphy||DE||6'3, 255||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||21.0||3.0%||4.5||2||0||1||0||0|
|Devin Cook||DE||6'4, 255||So.||*** (5.5)||13||12.5||1.8%||8||1||0||0||2||0|
|Khaynin Mosley-Smith||NT||6'0, 305||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jack Lippert||DE||6'4, 260||Sr.||**** (5.8)||2||4.0||0.6%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Darryl Render||DT||6'2, 285||So.||*** (5.7)||11||4.0||0.6%||1.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|LaQuentin Smith||DE||6'2, 275||Jr.||*** (5.5)||7||2.5||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|David Durham||DE||6'1, 255||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Luke Maclean||DE||6'3, 250||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Justin Moody||DE||6'3, 265||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Shakir Soto||DE||6'3, 255||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
|Tyrique Jarrett||NT||6'3, 340||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
8. Aaron Donald is still here
I'm not sure how Aaron Donald still has eligibility remaining; he is the prototypical "16th year senior" in my mind, even though he didn't really begin to make an impact until his sophomore season. Regardless, he has recorded 16.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss in the last two years, an incredible total. And his 53.0 tackles were third on the team, more than were recorded by the leading linebacker. You can build around a weapon like that.
At 6'0, 285, Donald is quick if perhaps a bit undersized; while Pitt's line stats suggest the linebackers pretty culpable for a good portion of the Panthers' poor rushing defense, it's probably safe to assume that Pitt could still stand up to blocks a bit better, especially in short-yardage situations. Having play-makers like Donald, senior nose Tyrone Ezell, and exciting sophomore end Devin Cook is great; but it's better if you're not also a sieve when not making plays in the backfield.
Pitt's run defense needs help all around, especially if linebacker Todd Thomas doesn't get things straightened out. Thomas briefly quit at the beginning of fall camp, and his status is unclear at the moment. If nothing else, however, the pass defense should remain solid, especially if Cook becomes more of a force in the pass rush.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Todd Thomas||WLB||6'2, 230||Jr.||**** (5.9)||9||49.5||7.1%||1.5||1.5||1||5||0||0|
|Shane Gordon||MLB||6'1, 230||Sr.||*** (5.6)||10||38.5||5.5%||6||1.5||0||6||0||0|
|Ejuan Price (2011)||WLB||6'0, 230||So.||*** (5.5)||13||22.0||3.1%||6.5||4||0||0||0||0|
|Nicholas Grigsby||WLB||6'1, 220||So.||**** (5.8)||12||21.5||3.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Anthony Gonzalez||SLB||6'3, 225||Jr.||*** (5.7)||9||9.0||1.3%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Emanuel Rackard||LB||6'0, 235||Sr.||NR||9||2.5||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Bam Bradley||SLB||6'2, 230||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Mike Caprara||MLB||6'0, 215||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Matt Galambos||LB||6'2, 215||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jason Hendricks||SS||6'0, 190||Sr.||** (5.3)||13||74.5||10.7%||3.5||0||6||4||0||0|
|K'Waun Williams||CB||5'10, 195||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||41.0||5.9%||2.5||0||4||1||0||0|
|Lafayette Pitts||CB||5'11, 195||So.||*** (5.7)||13||29.5||4.2%||0||0||1||9||1||1|
|Cullen Christian||CB||6'0, 195||Jr.||**** (5.9)||12||12.5||1.8%||0||1.5||0||1||0||0|
|Ray Vinopal||FS||5'10, 200||Jr.||** (5.4)||13||11.0||1.6%||1.5||1||0||0||0||0|
|Jahmahl Pardner||CB||5'11, 175||RSFr.||*** (5.5)||3||2.5||0.4%||1||1||0||0||1||0|
|E.J. Banks||DB||5'11, 190||Sr.||*** (5.7)||5||1.0||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Trenton Coles||CB||6'3, 175||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Ryan Lewis||S||6'0, 195||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
9. Ball skills galore
Pitt defensed 58 passes last year; the Panthers ranked only 59th in the category, but considering pace and the fact that opponents didn't feel the need to pass with any particularly high frequency, that's a pretty healthy total. And while two starters are gone in the secondary, the return of Hendricks, Williams, and corner Lafayette Pitts should ensure another solid level of activity. Pitts held his own as a freshman, defensing 10 passes to 29.5 overall tackles (a ratio that, as I always say, suggests either strong aggressiveness or poor tackling), though he was quite a bit less lucky, snagging only one of his 10 PDs for a pick.
Michigan transfers Cullen Christian and Ray Vinopal were only bit players as sophomores, but the depth here is pretty good. And at the linebacker position, Shane Gordon and Thomas were both pretty solid in pass defense (and shaky against the run). Seal up some of the leaky run defense, and the overall product improves pretty quickly.
|Matt Yoklic||6'4, 220||Sr.||61||41.8||6||10||19||47.5%|
|Lafayette Pitts||KR||5'11, 195||So.||30||24.3||0|
|Ronald Jones||PR||5'8, 170||Jr.||4||14.8||0|
|Special Teams F/+||51|
|Field Goal Pct||54|
|Kick Returns Avg||43|
|Punt Returns Avg||39|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|12-Oct||at Virginia Tech||23|
|2-Nov||at Georgia Tech||32|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||23|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||41|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+12 / +11.1|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (5, 7)|
10. A nice schedule if you're good enough
Pretend for a moment that Pittsburgh is indeed a top-30 or top-35 team in 2013. With so much change on the offense, that might be too ambitious, but if the Panthers reach that level, this schedule sets up nicely. Of five projected top-30 opponents, four visit Heinz Field; this is a lovely "Welcome to the ACC" schedule, though it will be accompanied by a pretty rough slate next season.
I'm not completely ruling out the thought of Pitt upsetting Florida State on the season's opening Monday night, but even if/when that doesn't happen, the Panthers should return to bowl eligibility by holding serve against decent teams and beating bad ones on the road.
Considering all of the recent turnover and turmoil -- drama which, with Shell's transfer, Thomas' quitting and non-quitting, and Chapman's arrest, hasn't completely abated yet -- simply maintaining top-50 form in Paul Chryst's second season (and Pitt's first in a new league) should probably be considered a bit of a victory. Pitt has mastered the art of overachieving in unimpressive fashion, and while the bar will eventually be raised, one more year of treading water wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.