Last week, ESPN.com featured a variety of Big East polls through its SportsNation page. Amidst the many polls, I found two to be of particular interest - Most Surprising Team and Most Disappointing Team in 2011. The ironic thing was that Pitt ended up on both lists.
That shouldn't be an enormous surprise based upon the uncertainty around the program right now with a new coaching staff and new system in place. But it got me to thinking - Is Pitt more likely to surprise or disappoint next season? Without having the benefit of having even seen a single practice, it's tough to say at this point. But if I've got to lean one way or the other, I'd be more inclined to say they will end up surprising some folks.
For one thing, the team is not going to be as heavily-favored to win the conference as it was last year. Pitt was the popular selection to do just that last season, and when it didn't happen ... well, that's part of the reason Dave Wannstedt is no longer around. This year, the Panthers may be a somewhat trendy pick by a few people, but aren't by any means the odds-on favorite, expected to win the Big East. If Pitt does manage to win the conference in Graham's first season, it will be a major accomplishment.
Looking at the roster, the losses of key players clearly stand out. Without question, Pitt will miss Dion Lewis, Jon Baldwin, Greg Romeus, Jabaal Sheard, and Jason Pinkston. But Wannstedt was a good recruiter, and there are plenty of capable players to step up. In Todd Graham's new offense, running back Ray Graham will put up big numbers as an all-purpose type of back. The same goes for wide receiver Devin Street, who will get plenty of balls thrown his way in the system, especially with Baldwin gone. Pitt played without Romeus most of last season. While the Panthers will be hard-pressed to replace Sheard completely, the cupboard is still stocked with Brandon Lindsey, who was second in the conference and No. 14 in the nation with 10 sacks.
I also have a hard time believing Pitt will simply fall off the face of the earth with a new coach and new system. While Todd Graham hasn't been a head coach in a BCS conference, he has been as an assistant and, as head coach at Tulsa, played some good teams in the past two years, including Oklahoma, Boise State, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma State. He knows the level of play in the BCS and won't be caught off-guard. He has also assembled a very experienced staff that will be around to help.
And about that system - we got a good look at it in the Spring game. Tino Sunseri, who's been much-maligned, threw for more than 400 yards on a rainy/windy cold day against a defense that knew what to expect. Now, I won't come close to trying to equate a Spring scrimmage where he wasn't allowed to be hit to even a weak non-conference game. But that contest at least suggested Sunseri shouldn't be a complete deer in the headlights by the time the season starts. He's got all summer to study the playbook and then the fall camp to work things out a bit more. On top of all that, he'll have the benefit of playing two teams Pitt should have little trouble with, Buffalo and Maine, before the season really gets started with a road game at Iowa.
Lastly, there's the home-field advantage. The Panthers have eight of their 12 games this season at Heinz Field. That should be another reason that the season won't spiral hopelessly out of control.
This doesn't necessarily mean that Pitt will win the Big East or have a big year in 2011. But at first glance, I think the team is capable of playing better than expected.