2011 Record: (6-7, 4-3 in Big East)
Head Coach: Paul Chryst (first time head coach)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 BBVA Compass Bowl: lost to SMU 28-6
Swing Games: 10/5 at Syracuse, 11/9 at UConn, 12/1 at USF
Stat to Cheer: scored on 91.3% of red zone trips (1st in Big East, 8th in Nation)
Stats to Fear: converted just 33.68% on third downs (7th in Big East, 108th in Nation); no player had more than one interception; allowed 63 sacks (last in Nation)
Phil Steele’s Returning Starters: (Offense: 9; Defense: 5; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: S Jarred Holley (67 tackles, 2 sacks), DT Aaron Donald (47 tackles, 11 sacks), LB Todd Thomas (48 tackles)
Key Offensive Returnees: RB Ray Graham (964 yards rush, 9 TD), QB Tino Sunseri (10 TD, 11 INT), WR Devin Street (53 rec), WR Mike Shanahan (39 rec)
CFBZ: Pitt is going through yet another coaching change and with that comes some changes in the system that they run. How do you think that will affect Pitt this season?
Pete Sonski: A change in coaching typically is a year-long implementation of staff getting to know players and their abilities, and players getting to know coaches and their ambitions. Discounting the interim coaches and Mike Haywood (who only held the title for 16 days), the Panthers will be under their third coaching staff in three seasons.
Dave Wannstedt ran a pro-style offense. Todd Graham implemented the spread and a no huddle approach. Paul Chryst is back to the pro-style set which is going to emphasize, or at least seek to maximize, the run game. Pitt has good personnel, but the transition will be an evolution over the season. There be mistakes along the way and may cost the team a win along the way.
Ultimately this should be a good move, although many felt hiring Graham was a good move too. If Chryst stays and implements a system similar to his successful offensive scheme at Wisconsin, Pitt should easily find recruits to keep the program competitive as it moves into the ACC.
CFBZ: Paul Chryst has named Tino Sunseri as the starting QB for the season. Is he the right guy to run the Pitt offense this season?
Pete Sonski: First, I believe every team should have a starting quarterback heading into camp (there’s always competition, so why not put someone in the leadership role up front?). Sunseri is the veteran senior in his last year of eligibility. With the coaching changes, stability at quarterback may be an advantage for the players.
However, Sunseri’s past performance is to be evaluated, remember that Pitt allowed 63 sacks last year. It’s difficult to put up statistics when a quarterback is constantly running for his life. Suffice it to say, he did not adapt to the Graham offense.
Mark Myers or, more likely, Chad Voytik is the future pilot of the Pitt offense, but it was a classy move – and a smart move – to give Sunseri the starting nod in his last year.
CFBZ: Pitt took a step back on defense last season. Who are some guys that need to step up on that side of the football for the Panthers?
Pete Sonski: The Panther’s pass defense gave up 50 yards more on average last year than it had for the preceding four seasons. Dave Huxtable, Pitt’s new defensive coordinator, followed Chryst from Wisconsin where he was linebackers coach. I expect he’ll try to makeover Pitt in the mold of successful Big 10 defenses, with sound fundamentals and constant pressure up front.
He has veterans to rely on: tackle Aaron Donald was named to the watch list to the 2012 Bednarik award for outstanding defensive player. Other leaders on the defense are cornerback K’Waun Williams and safeties Jarred Holley and Andrew Taglianetti.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for 2012 and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Pete Sonski: Pitt plays two tough non-conference games against Virginia Tech and (at) Notre Dame. The Panthers have four of seven conference games on the road and are a notch below the top three teams in the Big East this year – South Florida, Louisville and Rutgers. They also have an early conference game at Cincinnati, just five days after their opener. If they hit stride in mid-season and can pull off an upset in their last two games against Rutgers or South Florida, they’ll be bowl eligible and potentially cause a lot of upheaval in conference standings. Vegas has Pitt’s over/under win total at seven. I wouldn’t take the over though.
The Panthers coaching carousel spun around again this past off-season and when it stopped Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst was the man that arrived in Pittsburgh. Chryst has a great record as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin (2005-2011) which saw the Badgers hit double-digit wins four times and go to two Rose Bowls. The big question is with all of the coaching turnover, how quickly will it take Chryst to get this team back on track.
As Pete said in our Q&A, Chryst is going to want to run the ball and that’s a better fit for this personnel then what last years coach Todd Graham was trying to do last year. Ray Graham is a talented kid and he’s rushed for over 900 yards both of the past two years. He’s going to be the focal points of the offense and if he can stay healthy, Pitt has a fighting chance. Simplifying the offense should also help out Tino Sunseri as he went from 16 TDs with 9 INTs in 2010 to 10 TDs with 11 INTs in 2011. The OL has to step up as they gave up 63 sacks last and I stopped trying to find an FBS team that has given up more in the recent past.
On defense Pitt must replace four of their top six tacklers and included in that bunch were two players that combined for 15 sacks. Pitt will be young on the defensive side of the football with maybe as many as five underclassmen that will be starting. Pitt gave up more points and yards in 2011 than they did in 2010 so they are trending in the wrong direction. With such a young defense that will be learning a new defensive coordinators stye and scheme the defense will be a huge question-mark this season for Pitt.
Pitt lost seven games last year but they only play three of those teams this year. That’s the good news, the bad news is that they play at Cincinnati early and against Virginia Tech in just the third game of the year. That being said, this is far from a killer schedule and last year Pitt showed they could beat Big East foes like Louisville, Syracuse and USF. I wouldn’t expect a miracle from this team but I would expect them to be competitive week in and week out.
2012 Prediction: 6-6
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