Hope springs eternal. Those three words have been uttered by Pitt fans the past few seasons ... or decades. A new beginning. A new chance. A return to glory. All those nice happy thoughts. And then the season starts. Those dreams end up shattered all over the field, presumably on the ground next to Tino Sunseri, who most likely took too long to release the ball. Pitt camp starts today, and it's time to look forward to 2012. No more Todd Graham and his "high octane." It's a new era (again) for Pitt football, and it starts today.
If you look at my preview from last year (ignore just how wrong it turned out to be), you'll notice how optimistic I was going into camp. It's my one downfall. I'm an unabashed optimist when it comes to Pitt football. This year, I'm going to try and be a bit more reserved and realistic.
Before we get into the game-by-game predictions, I'm going to address some of the question marks heading into the season. The perennial problems persist:
- Quarterback: Tino Sunseri is back for his final year of eligibility. He'll be a lightning-rod of controversy the second he makes a bad play, most likely when he holds onto the ball too long and takes a killer sack. However, if new head coach Paul Chryst can mold Tino into a responsible game manager, I'll be more than thrilled. If he doesn't, expect to hear the calls for freshman Chad Voytik.
- Offensive line play: Rinse, wash, repeat. Same old, same old for the Panthers. Chris Jacobsen, who feels like he's been on the roster since the Hackett era, will anchor the line. Other than 'Lumpy,' the line is a huge question mark. It got even shakier this week with the season-long suspension of tackle Jauntez Hollins. Expect Adam Bisnowaty, a true freshman, to get an opportunity to lock up one of the tackle spots. This is never a good situation and will be a position to watch during camp.
- Ray Graham's health: I wrote about it here recently. Basically, Pitt needs Graham healthy and ready to face contact when the season starts. If he isn't, expect Rushel Shell and Isaac Bennett to benefit.
- Paul Chryst: I'm anxious to see how Chryst handles the reins as head coach. I expect to see a lot of running plays and play-action fakes. Also, I'm interested to see how he and his coaches handle the defensive side of the ball. There are many unknowns on that side of the ball, and some of those questions will be answered during camp.
Here's my breakdown of the schedule and a few fearless predictions that will most likely backfire (predicted score in italics):
September 1 vs. Youngstown State: The first of two 1-AA (FCS) opponents for the Panthers. This should be an easy game, but as a Pitt fan, I know that nothing is a guarantee. Pitt will probably start slow, but come on late to roll the Penguins, 35-14.
September 6 at Cincinnati:
The city of Cincinnati has become an easy place to hate lately. In the final River City Rivalry game (single tear) I expect the Panthers to bring that lovely trophy back up the Ohio to its rightful resting place, in Darrell Strong's living room
. Pitt wins, 24-17.
September 15 vs. Virginia Tech: Expectations will be high after their "rivalry" win, but I don't expect the Panthers to win this one, even though they have owned the Hokies in the past. Virginia Tech simply has too much talent. If you were a gambler, I'd say it's safe to bet that this is the week people start to call for Chad Voytik. Just a hunch. VT wins, 28-14.
September 22 vs. Gardner-Webb: Cakewalk city, 42-7.
October 5 at Syracuse: A week off to prepare for the Orange on a Friday night game the whole country will be watching on ESPN (not really). This one could be a coin toss. I'm leaning towards Pitt because of the Panthers' recent run against the Orange, but it's close, 21-20.
October 13 vs. Louisville: The Cardinals were picked to win the conference at Big East media day, but Charlie Strong has yet to beat the Panthers. I think that changes this year. Cards win, 20-14.
October 20 at Buffalo: AT BUFFALO?!?! We play at Buffalo? This can't be good. Pitt got a scare last year from the Bulls and now the Panthers have to travel to Buffalo. Panic. Panic. Panic. Pitt survives, 24-21.
October 27 vs. Temple: The Owls lost their coach and a lot of talent. The Panthers should win another close one, 17-14. Or it could be 31-14, I really don't know.
November 3 at Notre Dame: Right now I have the Panthers at 5-2 heading to South Bend. This is where it all starts ... to crumble. Brian Kelly owns Pitt. The Irish will win this one, 28-21.
November 9 at UConn: When you think of Pitt football at Connecticut, do you only think of bad things like I do? I think that trend will continue, even though Pitt handled the Huskies last year. Pitt loses, 21-17.
November 24 vs. Rutgers: The Fighting Snookies come to Pittsburgh and make a statement, 31-20.
December 1 at South Florida: Nothing cures the blues like a trip to South Florida, the Panthers end the season at 7-5 by breaking out of their slump and beating the Bulls, 34-21.
Final Record: 7-5 (most likely tied for 2nd in the Big East).
Bowl Projection: BBVA Compass Bowl, Birmingham, AL. Did you think it was going to be anywhere else?
Offensive MVP: Ray Graham. If Graham is fully healthy when the season starts, I expect him to dominate like we know he can. If not, the Panthers shouldn't lose too much from the running game with Shell and Bennett.
Defensive MVP: Aaron Donald
. Donald was a revelation last season and should dominate this season as well. Donald should be the anchor to a talented, but young line. Also, if Dan Mason comes back, starts, and is a force once again, I might reserve this spot for him. That's a lot of "ifs," unfortunately.
Closing Thoughts: Pitt fans badly want a winner. Paul Chryst seems like a good coach and possibly an even better individual. There is quite a difference in approaches from last season to this season. I urge Pitt fans to also take a different approach. Patience. Paul Chryst will need some time and talent before he can turn around the Pitt football program. It's not going to happen this season. So, please Pitt fans, don't get too high with the highs, and avoid getting too low with the lows. Enjoy the season, give it time, be patient, and "Hail to Pitt."