Pittsburgh Football: Are the Panthers a Contender in the Big East?

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Can Tino Sunseri lead Pittsburgh to a Big East title?

<p> Pittsburgh Football: Are the Panthers a Contender in the Big East?</p>

The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

Is Pittsburgh a Surprise Contender in the Big East for the 2012 season?

Mark Ennis, Manager of Big East Coast Bias (@Mengus22)
While I think it is certainly possible that Pittsburgh could be a surprise contender for the Big East title in its final year in the league, I think it is very unlikely. Still, Louisville was picked to finish at or near the bottom of the Big East last year and finished the season in a three-way tie for the conference title. With the distance from the top to the bottom being so small, I would be surprised but not shocked to see Pittsburgh in contention come November. With Paul Chryst bringing his run-heavy, play-action passing offense to Pittsburgh, the Panthers should benefit from an offense more suited to the personnel on hand instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole like Todd Graham did for virtually all of 2011.

Pittsburgh has several experienced offensive linemen back (injuries forced them to play several young linemen last year) that will block for what ought to be one of the better running back trios in the conference in Ray Graham, Isaac Bennett, and blue-chip freshman running back Rushel Shell. They also return virtually all of their receiving targets in tight end Hubie Graham and wide receivers Devin Street, Mike Shanahan, and Cameron Saddler.

Much like South Florida, Pittsburgh's fortunes depend on quarterback play and defense. Tino Sunseri was abysmal last year, throwing 11 interceptions and 10 touchdowns, while being sacked a nation-leading 6 times per game. In a system that runs the ball first and puts him back under center, he should be more comfortable and any improvement from him will make Pitt a formidable opponent. Defensively, the Panthers lose two their leading tacklers (Max Gruder, Tristan Roberts) and their best pass rushers (Brandon Lindsey, Chas Alecxih). For the first time in several years, there are no feared defensive ends on the Pitt defense and that means teams will try to run it on them just as much as they try to run the ball themselves. If no replacements develop, it could be a long year for the defense.

The schedule isn't too terrible, as they get Rutgers and Louisville at home and the toughest road conference game is at South Florida. 

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The Big East seems impossible to pick each season. West Virginia was the runaway favorite last year, and although the Mountaineers eventually ended in the BCS, they sure made the season interesting after a shocking loss to Syracuse. Louisville probably will be the prohibitive favorite again, but the Cardinals couldn’t handle success at all last season. Pittsburgh is in that next group of teams that could challenge Louisville if the Cardinals stumble. USF may be the only other team in the Big East’s second tier. Ray Graham, the Big East’s best offensive player at the time of his injury, should be healthy. Tino Sunseri has to be better than he was last season when he never took to the spread offense. As long as he doesn’t get sacked upwards of 60 times again, Pitt’s offense should give the Panthers a chance. And we know Paul Chryst knows what to do with an elite running back and capable starting quarterback. The biggest question will be on the offensive and defensive lines. Part of Sunseri’s problem taking sacks was the offensive line, some was on him. The offensive line, with Chris Jacobson healthy, needs to be better. On defense, the tandem of Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein at defensive tackle was underrated. They’ll be tough to replace. For Pitt, the good news is the Big East is winnable for just about any team. The Panthers should be in the mix even into November.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
There is one clear-cut team that will be picked by nearly everyone to win the Big East in 2012. Since the Pitt Panthers are one of the top challengers to the afore-not-mentioned predicted winner, it is hard to call them a sleeper. So my answer to the question is yes and no. Pitt will be a contender for the Big East title in 2012 but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if they do. Pitt gets two of the other top three teams in the league, Louisville and Rutgers, at home this fall. An early road trip to Cincinnati and season finale visit to South Florida will be the toughest road trips of the conference slate this fall. Offensive genius Paul Chryst takes over as head coach after producing the most prolific offenses in Wisconsin history. He has a returning quarterback in Tino Suneri, and running game that should be dramatically better with the return of injured Ray Graham and Chris Jacobson, as well as the addition of talented freshman Rushel Shell.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think it’s safe to say Louisville is the preseason favorite in the Big East, but I’m definitely on board with the idea that Pittsburgh is going to be a surprise contender this year. Sure, the Panthers were 6-7 and were smacked 28-6 by SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl. However, one of the biggest reasons for Pittsburgh’s lackluster record in 2011 was a bad job by the coaching staff of adapting to the personnel in place. Although Todd Graham wanted to run an up-tempo attack on offense, the Panthers didn’t have the roster to make it work. Graham left for Arizona State, and Pittsburgh made one of the top coaching hires of the offseason by luring Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to the Steel City. Chryst does not have any head coaching experience, but was one of college football’s top offensive coordinators during his stint in Madison. Quarterback Tino Sunseri and the offensive line weren’t without blame from last season’s struggles, but the coaching change is a much-needed fresh start and the change in systems should bring immediate improvement. The defense does have some key personnel losses, but returns likely All-Big East selections in defensive lineman Aaron Donald and safety Jarred Holley.

If Sunseri can play better, and running back Ray Graham returns 100 percent from an ACL tear, Pittsburgh can contend for the Big East title. The Panthers went 4-3 in conference play last year and two of those losses came by three points or less. With Louisville and South Florida visiting Heinz Field, I wouldn’t be shocked if Pittsburgh finishes in the top three of the Big East in 2012.  

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I see Pittsburgh finishing third or fourth in the conference, but it would not be a total surprise to see the Panthers win the crown in Paul Chryst’s first season.  Pitt hit a home run with the hire of the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, and Chryst will have plenty of talent on that side of the ball. Star running back Ray Graham should be healthy, and we’ll have to wait and see how the new staff develops an inconsistent offensive line and quarterback Tino Sunseri. My concern with the Panthers is on defense, especially in the front seven. I see that inexperienced group taking a year to develop, and keeping Pitt from winning the league this season. USF and Rutgers should be the main challengers to Louisville for the Big East title, but the unexpected does happen in this conference quite often. Pitt will make it interesting with Graham and the new offense in 2012, and the best news for Panthers fans is that they have a great coach who will do very well in the Steel City in the near future.

How will Athlon predict the Big East standings for 2012? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day. 

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