Can Todd Graham lead Pitt to a successful first season?
Many Pitt fans had seen enough of Dave Wannstedt after the Panthers' inability to capture the Big East's BCS automatic bid last season, despite a strong start in a weak conference. Pitt's administration felt the same way and the coach was dismissed in place of Todd Graham. Graham has been preaching all offseason that the team will load up offensively and put points on the scoreboard. But the defense will play a role as well if Pitt is to win the Big East in 2011.
Team MVP and Offensive MVP: Ray Graham. Pitt will use many other weapons, to be sure, but Graham likely holds the key as he should be involved in so many plays. Tino Sunseri's play at quarterback will ultimately determine how far the Panthers go in 2011, but Graham is the team's best skill player on offense. He could easily lead the conference in rushing and even contend for the conference Offensive Player of the Year if things break right. Pitt will look to Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown to allow for some breathers, but make no mistake - this should be Graham's year.
Defensive MVP: Brandon Lindsey. Lindsey will hope to keep the pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. Last year, in place of the injured Greg Romeus, he stepped in admirably, totaling 10 sacks. Of course, those numbers were due in part to Jabaal Sheard's presence at the other defensive end position and the attention he attracted from blockers, but Lindsey is legitimately talented, and like Graham, could contend for the conference Player of the Year honors. Lindsey is moving to a different position, the Panther linebacker spot, under Graham's defense. But still look for him to make a big impact and cause disruption in the backfield, as one of his primary responsibilities will simply be to rush the passer.
Strongest Position Group: Defensive line. With the aforementioned Graham and Brown, the running backs will have one of the best one-two punches in the conference, but it's the defensive line that's the strongest. Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih are both seniors and Alecxih had a huge year last season with 7.5 sacks. Sophomore Aaron Donald should also start and showed immense promise, playing in all 13 games as a true freshman last year. The reserves are mostly young, but all talented, making this the most feared group on the team. Included is former five-star recruit T.J. Clemmings along with Khaynin Mosley-Smith, Tyrone Ezell, and Justin Hargrove.
Weakest Position Group: Offensive line. It's the same old story for the Panthers as they will try somewhat of a patchwork offensive line. Lucas Nix, Chris Jacobson, Ryan Turnley, Juantez Hollins, and Jordan Gibbs appear to be the starters. For now. But if Turnley falters at center, that could set off a chain reaction, as Jacobson would most likely move there and force one of the reserves into action as a starter - most likely Greg Gaskins or Cory King. Pitt is really thin in quality depth on the offensive line and even a single injury could make things extremely tricky. The other key point is that Todd Graham's new offense will look to get snaps off every 15 seconds (or close to it). That's likely to wear a bit on the linemen, even with improved conditioning. Reserves are going to be needed and will see some action, even without any injuries.
Panther Most Likely To Hear It From The Crowd. Tino Sunseri. Sunseri heard plenty of boos last season and he should again be prepared to have to deal with anxious home fans who will at some point wonder if he's the right guy for the system. I defended Tino last season, and while I think he'll be fine, there will be some growing pains in the new offense. Botched snaps and even interceptions will be on the menu at the big ketchup bottle, but through it all, Pitt needs Sunseri to keep the team together, and I think he will.
Most Likely To Become Dorin Dickerson: Anthony Gonzalez. Pitt fans know the story well - athletic freshman comes in and is expected to make impact right away. Coaches don't know what to do with him, and he bounces around various positions like he's in a pinball machine. The freshman finds a home as a senior and gets drafted in the NFL. Such was the excruciatingly annoying case of Dorin Dickerson. That hasn't happened to Gonzo yet, but here's hoping the coaching staff quickly decides where he belongs and sticks with it. He no longer appears to be a quarterback (at least for the time being) and the coaches have decided it's best to get him on the field anywhere they can. Gonzalez has been working out with the tight ends as an H-back, and should see time on the field this year in some capacity. But the real test will come if Sunseri goes down with an injury or is ineffective. Does Graham go to his apparent backup, Trey Anderson (a walk-on from Texas), former backup Mark Myers, or does he go back to Gonzalez, who was effective in the Spring? Time will tell.
Most Likely To Ruin Pitt's Season: Dana Holgorsen. As much enthusiasm exists around Todd Graham's offense, a key fact remains. New West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen's teams have outplayed Graham's back in their old days at Tulsa and Oklahoma State, respectively. With eight home games, Pitt could be right there when it comes down to deciding the conference championship. The champion could be determined from the Backyard Brawl, and the Mountaineers, playing in Morgantown, could have the perfect concoction to derail Pitt's BCS hopes.
Panther That Looks Most Like A Celebrity: Todd Graham. Graham is a dead ringer for Frank Caliendo when doing his George Bush impersonation. No, seriously.
Season Prediction: 8-4 (4-2 Big East), Pinstripe Bowl. I think Pitt will lose that game against West Virginia and one other conference matchup. I expect the Panthers to finish second, but they won't be rewarded with the Champs Sports Bowl (which I think will go to Notre Dame). No, Pitt will be headed for the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium. What? You hadn't heard? Oh yeah, there's a new bowl game now. Another one.
On a baseball field.
In freezing New York City.