Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
Top 120 countdown
No. 48 Pittsburgh
Coach:Dave Wannstedt (25-23 in four seasons). | Staff In 2008: 9-4 overall, 5-2 in Big East (tied for second in league). Lost to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 7. Defense: 7. Special teams: 0. | Depth Chart Final 2008 Rivals.com ranking: 28th. | Complete Final 2008 Rankings Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 47th in 2009, 28th in '08, 16th in '07, 21st in '06.
THE SCHEME: Pittsburgh ran a pro-style offense with an emphasis on the running game in the past two seasons with TB LeSean McCoy. New coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. was added to the staff to replace the NFL-bound Matt Cavanaugh, who was heavily criticized for being too conservative and predictable.
STAR POWER: Pittsburgh's star power is playing for the Philadelphia Eagles now. McCoy clearly was the focal point of the offense in '08. This season, sophomore WR Jonathan Baldwin should be Pitt's best offensive threat, but quarterback play looks like it could be a liability without the safety net McCoy provided.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: McCoy's isn't the only void to fill. Reliable backup RB LaRod Stephens-Howling is gone, too. It's a good thing true freshman Dion Lewis enrolled early. He emerged from spring as the starting running back, beating out redshirt freshman Chris Burns and junior Kevin Collier. The 5-foot-8 Lewis makes up for his size with good acceleration, and he is in the mix for up to 30 carries a game, coach Dave Wannstedt has said.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Baldwin didn't make the immediate impact Julio Jones, A.J. Green or DeAndre Brown his five-star classmates in the 2008 class made as true freshmen. That could change. Baldwin was the second receiving option for Pittsburgh last season after senior Derek Kinder. Baldwin will be the No. 1 wide receiver this season and the team's most dangerous playmaker. Despite having only 18 catches, he was second on the team in receiving yards, thanks to his 22.4 yards-per-catch average.
STRONGEST AREA: A young running back and an unproven quarterback have at least one luxury an experienced line. Four starters are back, though Joe Thomas a 27-game starter in his career was beaten out at two positions (guard and tackle) in the spring. Besides Baldwin, Pittsburgh should have capable receivers, including all-conference TE Nate Byham. Senior Oderick Turner was a freshman All-America wide receiver, but he has not topped his rookie numbers and has lost his starting job. Cedric McGee doesn't have the size of Turner or Baldwin, but he may be the toughest wide receiver of the three.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Pittsburgh's season will hinge on the success of its quarterback. For the third consecutive season, Bill Stull will go into the season as the starter (he started the 2007 opener before a thumb injury ended his season in the first game). He and Pat Bostick will continue to vie for the starting position into the fall. Cignetti replaces the beleaguered Cavanaugh, but Cignetti hasn't had a particularly impressive résumé since leaving Fresno State after the 2005 season.
THE SCHEME: The Panthers play a 4-3 defense under the direction of Phil Bennett, who is one of the nation's best coordinators.
STAR POWER: Pittsburgh signed E Greg Romeus after he had played just one season of organized football. It turned out to be a stroke of genius. Romeus is the best defensive end in the Big East not named George Selvie. Romeus had 15.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks as a sophomore last season, and he's continuing to improve.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Pitt has enough experience on defense to not have to rely on a freshman or transfer in many spots. The best bet to see playing time as a freshman is LB Dan Mason. Pittsburgh is replacing two starting linebackers, and Mason will back up two middle linebackers with injury histories.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: LB Greg Williams was an easy pick for freshman all-conference honors after he made 47 tackles last season. The speedy 'backer was instrumental in a victory over Connecticut, with two interceptions and a touchdown. As the only returning starter at linebacker, look for Williams to emerge as a playmaker on a veteran defense.
STRONGEST AREA: Romeus is the clear leader on the line, but he has a more-than-capable sidekick in fellow Floridian Jabaal Sheard, who had 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss last season. T Mick Williams is the third returning starter on a line that should keep the heat on opposing quarterbacks.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Losing tackle machine Scott McKillop will hurt the linebackers, but if everything breaks right, linebacker should be OK. Veterans Adam Gunn (neck), Steve Dell and Shane Murray (both knees) have shown flashes of their abilities, but they also have missed extended time with injuries. Gunn and Murray were starters at outside linebacker in 2007, but both are moving to the middle now that they are healthy.
The most valuable returning players on Pitt's special teams are Romeus and backup safety Andrew Taglianetti, who helped the Panthers lead the nation in blocked kicks and punts with three apiece. The Panthers will be without K Conor Lee, who never missed more than four field goals in each of his three seasons, and Dave Brytus was a reliable punter. Walk-on Dan Hutchins is slated to take over both spots. Pittsburgh dismissed its top punt returner, T.J. Porter, in April, but the Panthers shouldn't have too much trouble finding a replacement in redshirt freshman Cameron Saddler.
Wannstedt may have saved his job or at least some headaches by winning nine games last season. He'll be expected to stay in the mix for the Big East title from now on. That's not an unreasonable expectation, either. The overall talent level has increased under Wannstedt, who views his alma mater as his destination job. The staff has unearthed some prospects and turned them into all-conference players, such as Romeus, Williams and SS Dom DeCicco. The test for the staff this season will be what kind of quarterback play Cignetti can coax out of Stull or Bostick. Maybe the coaching change for the two struggling quarterbacks will provide a spark.
The unbalanced Big East schedule favors Pittsburgh, which will have four conference home games, though its game against rival West Virginia is in Morgantown. The Panthers aren't likely to lose their opener, as they did last season at home against Bowling Green. Pitt opens against Youngstown State, its only non-conference game against a team that didn't go to a bowl. The Panthers should be tested in non-conference play when they face North Carolina State on the road and when Notre Dame makes a return trip to the Steel City after Pitt's four-overtime victory in South Bend last season.
Pittsburgh finally had its long-awaited breakthrough under Wannstedt, finishing 9-4 after a run at the Big East title. The offense must regroup from McCoy's departure. Whether it's Stull, Bostick or Lewis, someone on the offense needs to have a breakout season for Pitt to emerge as the conference champ. An upper-half finish in the league is a more legitimate goal.