The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 53: Pittsburgh
Coach: Paul Chryst (0-0, entering first season)
2011 record: 6-7 (4-3 in Big East, tied for fourth place)
Look back: Todd Graham took over as Pitt’s new coach in 2010 and was eager to install his rapid-fire, no huddle offensive attack. It wasn’t an easy transition from previous coach Dave Wannstedt’s hard nosed, pro style attack. The team opened the Graham era with back-to-back wins, beating Buffalo 35-16 and Maine 35-29. Pitt then lost four of its next five games against tougher competition, falling 31-27 at Iowa, 15-12 against Notre Dame, 34-10 at Rutgers and 26-14 against Utah. The team’s sole victory during the stretch was a 44-17 win over USF.
With a 3-4 record, Pitt had to win three of its final five games to clinch bowl eligibility. The Panthers delivered, beating Connecticut 35-20, losing 26-23 against Cincinnati, beating Louisville 21-14 and losing 21-20 at West Virginia. The team faced Syracuse in the regular season finale. It was a must-win game for Pitt, which needed the victory to earn a bowl invitation. The Panthers rolled to a 33-20 home win.
It seemed as though the Pitt football program was heading in a positive direction when Graham opted to leave the school after just one year and take over as Arizona State’s new head coach. He asked one of his staff members to inform the players of his decision, and most of them learned of the news via text message. The athletes didn’t react well to losing their head coach for the second consecutive year. They took to Twitter to blast Graham for the way he preached to them about buying in and being part of the Pitt program, then abruptly leaving them behind.
Pitt defensive coordinator Keith Patterson coached the Panthers during the BBVA Compass Bowl. While SMU seamlessly ran June Jones’ pass heavy attack, Pitt was a team in transition and struggled to keep up in the bowl game. SMU raced out to a 21-0 lead and held on for a 28-6 win over the Panthers.
In December, Paul Chryst took over as the Panthers’ new head coach. Chryst previously worked as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator from 2005-11. He plans to scrap Graham’s spread offense and shift back to more of a pro style offense.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 3/8
Defensive starters lost/returning: 6/5
Key losses: DL Chas Alecxih, LB Max Gruder, CB Antwuan Reed, LB Greg Williams, LB Tristan Roberts, DL Brandon Lindsey, DL Myles Caragein, OL Greg Gaskins.
Top returnees: RB Ray Graham, QB Tino Sunseri, S Jarred Holley, WR Devin Street, OL Chris Jacobson, DL Aaron Donald, WR Mike Shanahan, C Ryan Turnley.
Strengths: Quarterback Tino Sunseri returns to lead the Pitt offense for the third consecutive season. While he hasn’t always put up dazzling numbers, Sunseri’s experience should help him adapt to more changes to the offense. Running back Ray Graham was the sole player who truly thrived in Graham’s spread attack. He has the playmaking skills to perform well again in pro style offense. Safety Jarred Holley is among the strongest returning defensive players and will have to take on a leadership role.
The team is poised to join the Atlantic Coast Conference as early as the 2013 season. The move is largely viewed as a step up from the Big East and should help Pitt continue its strong recruiting.
Weaknesses: Pitt players are being forced to adapt to their second head coaching change in as many seasons. It’s a huge challenge to learn new playbooks and adapt to new schemes. While the core of the offense returns, Pitt has to plug some big holes on an offensive line that was inconsistent last season. The team also lost key defensive linemen and linebackers from last year’s group.
Outlook: Pitt has the talent to earn another bowl invitation, but it will take some time for the team to adapt to the many changes it has endured during the past two years.
Sept. 1 Youngstown State
Sept. 6 At Cincinnati
Sept. 15 Virginia Tech
Sept. 22 Gardner-Webb
Oct. 5 At Syracuse
Oct. 13 Louisville
Oct. 20 At Buffalo
Oct. 27 Temple
Nov. 3 At Notre Dame
Nov. 9 At Connecticut
Nov. 24 Rutgers
Dec. 1 At USF
Rest of the countdown: