The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 36 Pittsburgh.
Previewing Pittsburgh’s Offense for 2014:
Pittsburgh was more jugger-not than juggernaut in its debut season in the ACC. It ranked 118th nationally in sacks allowed, 102nd in rushing yards and 80th in points. Are better times ahead? Hard to tell.
For the second consecutive season, coach Paul Chryst must break in a new starting quarterback. Sophomore Chad Voytik is a dual-threat in the mold of Russell Wilson (whom Chryst coached as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin). He threw for more than 5,000 yards as a prep. Problem is, his collegiate sample size is limited to 11 career passing attempts. That said, Voytik opened eyes after stepping in for injured starter Tom Savage in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and leading a last-second victory.
Voytik’s transition should be made easier thanks to sophomore wideout Tyler Boyd, who was the nation’s most productive freshman receiver with 85 receptions for 1,174 yards. The challenge is finding a No. 2 pass-catcher to offset the attention Boyd is sure to face.
At running back, bruising sophomore James Conner is coming off a 799-yard season (5.5 per carry), during which he ran for 229 yards in the bowl victory over Bowling Green. The offensive line could be a concern. The unit returns four starters, but given last season’s struggles, that might not be a positive.
Previewing Pittsburgh’s Defense for 2014:
How does Pittsburgh replace all-everything tackle Aaron Donald? It doesn’t. However, “Just because one guy left doesn’t mean the whole defensive line is going to fall apart,” says junior tackle Darryl Render. The belief is that Donald’s tenacity will have a residual effect for current and future Panthers. And with only five starters returning from a unit that ranked 34th overall, that’s a must. Render and Khaynin Mosley-Smith will provide experience on the interior line, while sophomore end Shakir Soto, who had a sack in his lone start in ’13, is a player to watch as Pittsburgh tries to increase its sack total of 25.
A point of emphasis for the linebackers and defensive backs this spring was creating more turnovers, given that the Panthers ranked 107th in that category. They also had an ACC-low eight interceptions. A big season is needed from athletic linebacker Todd Thomas, who was fourth in tackles but provided no sacks or interceptions. Ditto for cornerback Lafayette Pitts (no interceptions). As a unit, the linebacking corps could flourish with returning starter and former blue-chip quarterback Anthony Gonzalez joining Thomas and true sophomore Matt Galambos. In the secondary, safety Ray Vinopal returns after ranking second in tackles. He also had two interceptions in an upset of Notre Dame.
Previewing Pittsburgh’s Specialists for 2014:
Chris Blewitt set a record for Pittsburgh freshman kickers with 82 points, converting 14-of-18 field goals. At punter, redshirt freshman Ryan Winslow steps in for three-year starter Matt Yoklic.
In recent vintage, Pittsburgh would best be described as unimpressive and/or average. The words are cringe-worthy for those involved with the program, but not inaccurate. The Panthers are 13–13 in two seasons under Chryst and 19–20 since 2011. The good news is that the program firmly belongs to Chryst — only 17 players remain from previous regimes — and young players are making an impact. Chryst played 12 freshmen extensively last season. Still, the Panthers should expect to experience more growing pains, given the uncertainty at quarterback, the precarious nature of the offensive line and a defense that lost the best lineman in the nation. Victories over Notre Dame, Duke and Bowling Green in ’13 can serve as building blocks, but losses to Navy, Georgia Tech and North Carolina are reminders that more work must be done.