2011 Record: 6-7 overall; 4-3 Big East
2011 Bowl Game: 6-28 loss to SMU in the Compass Bowl
Head Coach: Paul Chryst
Odds to win Big East: +600
Chryst will be making his debut coaching the Panthers this season and is going to look to keep the offense as basic as possible to begin with. He’s the fourth coach for Pittsburgh in three seasons, so to do anything otherwise might not even seem to make sense. Either way, it’s safe to say that he won’t be employing the same no huddle offense that previous coach Todd Graham did, as it was very ineffective and led to a losing record. Chryst served as offensive coordinator for Wisconsin, so he has the know-how. It’s just a matter now of seeing whether he can maximize his personnel on a much less talented Pittsburgh team. His Wisconsin teams averaged 44.1 points and 470 yards per game last season. It’s safe to say he won’t be replicating that with this much less talented team.
First off, Chryst must find a consistent option at QB. Tino Sunseri only managed 10 TDs last year, which doesn’t sound so bad until you consider he had one more interception than that figure. He was also sacked 60 times. If Sunseri can’t improve, it’s quite likely that US Army All American Chad Voytik emerges as the starter. We’ll see.
There are questions at running back too. Ray Graham has the talent, to be sure, but is coming off a season ending ACL injury that he just had surgically repaired. He was the nation’s second leading rusher before the injury in week 8…so a return to that form could mean big things for the Panthers. Rushel Shell was a top 5 tailback recruit, though, and he could be big from day one.
At receiver, they are led by Devin Street (53 catches last year) and Mike Shanahan (39 catches).
The OL returns senior Chris Jacobson and senior Ryan Turnley, but the tackle spots are far less promising, as they are going to rely on a sophomore (Matt Rotherham) and junior Juantez Hollins.
The defense is undergoing a complete overhaul, as only five starters return from last year’s squad. They’ll also be converting to a 4-3 format on defense.
Junior tackle Aaron Donald will be instrumental in the defensive attack and he may be the best player on Pittsburgh’s team. He’s a true leader and had 11 sacks last year, but is going to have his hands full with a host of teammates he has never played with before. He’ll demand double teams from opposing offenses and that should make life easier on sophomore ends Bryan Murphy and TJ Clemmings. Clemmings was a top DL recruit in 2010 and has yet to capitalize on that enormous potential.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on Dan Mason, a strong hitting big man who suffered a season ending knee injury last year. His health could make the defense much stronger.
The secondary is a little less shaky with foru starters returning, including two time All Big East pick Jarred Holley at FS and cornerback K’Waun Williams.
Kevin Harper, a senior kicker, hit 68% of his field goals last season and they also have a talented punter in Matt Yoklic, who ranked 2nd in the Big East with 41.2 yards per punt. Ronald Jones has the potential for some big returns, too, so the special teams will be a strength for Pittsburgh.
It’s been rough for Pittsburgh the last few years and they just need to find some sense of comfort in the fact that they finally have a coach with a strong offensive background who should be able to help remake the program.
Chryst is the kind of guy that Pittsburgh fans can rally around and he’s already built some faith in the fans of the program but he has to find a way to instill some confidence in a group of players who often looked lost last year playing for a lame duck coach. Pittsburgh will move to the ACC after this season, but this season still serves of great importance to strike up some form of sanity in a program that has had very little in recent times.