Let's face it - Pitt football's 2011 regular season was a disappointment. The problem isn't that Todd Graham didn't have the season many of us thought he would, but that Pitt has taken, at least temporarily, a step back as a program. That step back may be necessary to progress further than the point the program reached under Dave Wannstedt, but if we're assessing this season on its own, it was a colossal disappointment.
The theme of the season was that Pitt was plagued by close losses and late collapses. The Iowa game was one of the most disappointing I've witnessed in more than 15 years of watching Pitt. A 17-point lead in the fourth quarter generally equals victory, but the Panthers proved that that's no sure thing. The team was then snakebit by a three-point loss to Notre Dame, again giving up a fourth-quarter lead.
Pitt crushed the ranked South Florida Bulls 44-17 and Ray Graham had a coming out party so dynamic (226 rushing yards and two touchdowns) that even Lebron James took to tweeting about it. Just like that, there were thoughts that Todd Graham was on the right track. Thoughts that maybe this offense could work.
High hopes were dashed with losses to Rutgers and then Utah (on homecoming, no less), but the bulk of the Big East season was still left. Unfortunately, the Panthers couldn't get on track, as they went 3-2 the rest of the way. Again, Pitt came up on the losing end of two close games. The team gave up a halftime lead in losing by three at home against Cincinnati and after leading 20-7 against West Virginia, lost a heartbreaker by a single point.
The encouraging thing, of course, is that Pitt was in nearly every game it played this season. Only in an inexplicable 34-10 loss to Rutgers did they look utterly overmatched. Pitt quite clearly could have been a 10-win season if they were even merely able to hold leads late in games. The defense played well much of the season and while the offense struggled, there were glimpses of success.
Another reason for optimism is that Pitt played a large chunk of its season without running back Ray Graham. Graham, injured in a win against UConn, was Pitt's best player and the nation's leading rusher at the time. His loss unquestionably hurt the team and he could have come in handy in those games against Cincinnati and West Virginia. If he comes back next season, Pitt's offense will be better because of it.
Tino Sunseri? He's still a huge question mark. Pitt is rumored to be actively seeking to bring in quarterback competition for Sunseri and it's clear that Todd Graham wasn't always happy with his play. As I've pointed out throughout the season over at Cardiac Hill, he's had his share of good games. But his inability to throw the ball away while continually taking sacks went from being casually annoying to downright frustrating in a hurry. If he's the starter again, Sunseri simply has to play better next year.
In the end, Pitt was out of contention for the Big East title by the time the season finale came up against Syracuse and the team finished 6-6. Four of their losses came by only 11 points and I'm convinced that Pitt is one of the better .500 teams out there. But the reality is that the Panthers aren't playing for .500. They're not even playing to win a Big East championship. If you believe Todd Graham, the team wants to compete for national championships. And that won't happen until they learn how to win close games.