Pitt Football Preview: Panthers Poised For A BCS Run

Can Pitt win its first Big East championship under Dave Wannstedt?

Dave Wannstedt enters his sixth season as head coach at Pitt with arguably his strongest team yet. The Panthers return several key pieces on both sides of the ball and the goal is clear: Win the Big East.

OFFENSE

Quarterback - Tino Sunseri is entering his first season as the starter and has essentially been handed the keys to a Mercedes. In running back Dion Lewis and receiver Jon Baldwin, Sunseri has some of college football's best players to help him, and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti knows how to make the best use of the talent on offense. Sunseri doesn't need to be spectacular for Pitt to succeed; he only needs to avoid costly mistakes.

Backfield - Lewis is one of the top running backs in college football, and if he's able to come close to his 1,799-yard 2009 performance, he could get serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy. Lewis was durable last season, and with a first-year starter at quarterback, Pitt will rely on him heavily once again. Pitt's No. 2 man, Ray Graham, would start for many D-1 programs and will provide some relief when Lewis needs a breather. Fumbles plagued him a bit last year, but Graham has big-play ability that most teams' backups do not. At fullback, Henry Hynoski is a fan favorite and will do more of what he does best - run defenders over and make key blocks.

Receivers - The receiving corps is led by potential Biletnikoff Award winner Jon Baldwin. Baldwin had a coming-out party of sorts on national television against Notre Dame last year when he caught five passes for 142 yards (including an incredible 36-yard diving touchdown grab). But Pitt has other receivers who will make an impact as well. Fellow starting wideout Mike Shanahan seems to catch everything thrown his way, and redshirt freshman Devin Street will provide another deep threat off the bench. Cam Saddler and converted quarterback Greg Cross will complete the projected five-man rotation.

Tight end - Pitt lost two players who both made it to the NFL, Dorin Dickerson and Nate Byham. While the position is in solid hands with Mike Cruz (who had a good camp), Cruz will be hard pressed to match Dickerson's monster 2009 of 49 catches for 10 touchdowns.

Offensive line - The offensive line is perhaps Pitt's greatest area of concern. The Panthers have had to replace three of the five starters on the line, and two positions, right guard and center, were essentially not settled until late in camp. Jason Pinkston and Lucas Nix anchor the line as tackles, and Pinkston could be a first-round NFL Draft selection. Other than that, it's going to be a work in progress with the interior of the line.

DEFENSE

Defensive line - Pitt's front four should be among the best in the country. The line is led by defensive ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard. Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih might be a slight downgrade from 2009 starters Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas, but should be solid. Brandon Lindsey, Shayne Hale, and true freshman Aaron Donald are all players to watch off the bench.

Secondary - The secondary could cause some concern, especially with the graduation of Aaron Berry. However, word from camp was that this unit is much improved, and that redshirt senior Ricky Gary has gotten much better. Antwuan Reed somewhat unexpectedly beat out junior college transfer Saheed Imoru, and Dom DeCicco and Jarred Holley are both good safeties. Pitt should have some good play out of its starters, but much like the offensive line, if the secondary has to battle any injuries, it could be in trouble.

Linebackers - Local product Dan Mason is the new man in the middle and could be Pitt's breakout player of the year. Joining him are redshirt juniors Tristan Roberts and Max Gruder. Backup Greg Williams will also contend for time this season. Elijah Fields was expected to be a key member of the linebacker corps until he was excused from team for off-field issues. Also gone are All Big-East First Team member Adam Gunn and Shane Murray. Still, this year's group should be fine.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker/Punter Dan Hutchins will threaten for All-Conference honors and last season provided a smooth transition from the departure of Conor Lee, one of the best kickers in Pitt's history. Backup WR Cam Saddler will also handle most of the kickoff and punt return duties and while he didn't break one for a touchdown last season, showed he has enough speed to do just that. An improved Saddler will be a real threat back there, which is leaps and bounds over past seasons when the team has, at times, struggled to even hold onto the ball.

OUTLOOK

The team has high expectations but a fairly difficult schedule to go along with them. My call? Pitt wins the Big East and finishes the regular season at 9-3.

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