With the release of Pitt's 2011 football schedule, there's plenty of reason for optimism. But first, the bad news.
Gone are running back Dion Lewis and wide receiver Jon Baldwin, two of the Big East's most explosive offensive players last season. Gone is safety Dom DeCicco, the glue of an already-rickety secondary. And gone are bookend defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus, as well as offensive lineman Jason Pinkston.
Fortunately, the team has adequate replacements at nearly all of those positions. Running back Ray Graham often played as well as (or better than) Lewis did last season, and his 6.2 yards per carry was nearly a yard and a half better than Lewis'. Devin Street emerged this season as a potential game-breaking wide receiver, and with Mike Shanahan and redshirt Todd Thomas, the receiving corps could be a very good unit. Brandon Lindsey, who started much of the season for the ailing Romeus, led the Panthers in sacks last year with ten (second in the Big East) and led the conference in tackles for loss. Pitt will miss Pinkston and DeCicco, but six of the nine starters on the offensive line and in the secondary will be back and will be a year older.
So while there are personnel losses, they're not insurmountable. And besides, that schedule is enough to almost make you forget all of that.
The biggest advantage is, of course, the eight home games. Pitt's football team isn't as dominant at Heinz Field as the basketball team is at the Pete, but the Panthers are a more-than-respectable 10-3 at home over the past two seasons. It's easy to envision the team winning six games at Heinz Field. Home opponents include Utah, Notre Dame, Buffalo, Maine, South Florida, UConn, Cincinnati, and Syracuse. Pitt should be able to compete in all of their Big East games, and while Utah and Notre Dame will be challenges, neither of those teams are invincible.
The road games are manageable, too. Trips to Iowa and West Virginia will be challenging, but Rutgers and Louisville will be winnable games.
That doesn't mean it will be an easy season. It's unclear how the team will respond to new coach Todd Graham's spread/no-huddle/whatever-you-want-to-call-it offense. It could open things up, but there could also be some growing pains as the players learn the system. The Panthers will also be learning under a new staff that will want them to do at least some things differently. There could be some personality clashes along the way.
The biggest factor will be what Pitt does at quarterback. Will Todd Graham rely on 2010 starter Tino Sunseri, who had a good, but unspectacular, year? Or will he instead look to redshirt freshmen Mark Myers or Anthony Gonzalez? Whoever Graham picks, quarterback may not be one of the team's strengths in 2011. It's tough enough to play the position, but even tougher when learning a new offense.
So where will this Pitt team end up? No one really knows and we're not even in Spring practice yet. That said, at first glance, and as an entirely too early prediction, I'll say Pitt has the potential to be 9-3. They could, of course, win fewer games than that, but I think that is their ceiling. Throw in a bowl game for good measure and ten wins could be a real possibility.
If that happens, Graham would be off to a great start.