THE SCHEME: The Panthers' pro-style offense seeks balanced production, but last season, there was an over-reliance on the running game. Injuries crippled the Panthers' passing attack and they ranked just 104th in the nation in passing offense.
STAR POWER: Tailback LeSean McCoy had a dynamic freshman season and figures to be even better as a sophomore. The nation's top freshman rusher a year ago, he's drawing comparisons to Pitt legend Tony Dorsett. A bit much? Probably. But it shows the kind of impact McCoy has made.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Only three wide receivers on the current roster caught passes in '07, so the Panthers could use some immediate help there. Incoming freshman Jonathan Baldwin could be the guy. A five-star prospect, Baldwin is a huge target (6 feet 6, 230 pounds) with 4.4 speed. He averaged 14.9 yards a catch and scored nine touchdowns as a high school senior.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior quarterback Bill Stull suffered a season-ending thumb injury in the first game last season, and the Panthers' passing game struggled. Although he has thrown only 30 passes in his college career, Stull figures to be the key to the Panthers' success. If he has a strong season, Pitt likely will, too. If not? Well, we saw what happened in '07.
STRONGEST AREA: Pitt is loaded at running back. McCoy leads the way, and backup LaRod Stephens-Howling was the Panthers' leading rusher before McCoy's arrival. And just for good measure, Conredge Collins is entering his third season as the starting fullback.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Admittedly, quarterback shouldn't be as big a problem as it was last season, but the Panthers still are counting on potential instead of proof. With freshmen at the helm most of last season, Pitt threw 10 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions.
OVERVIEW: Replacing two starting tackles, including first-round pick Jeff Otah, is a concern. But offensive success, or lack thereof, seems dependent on the play of the quarterback. Stull returns from a thumb injury that forced him to miss every game but one, and touted sophomore Pat Bostick now has a year of experience. Whoever gets the nod will benefit from the return of senior receiver Derek Kinder, an All-Big East selection in 2006 who missed the '07 season with a knee injury. An improved passing attack will help McCoy, who ran for 1,328 yards last season despite seeing defenses with seven and eight guys in the box. As for the line, Jason Pinkston – who was the starting right tackle last season before suffering a shoulder injury in Game 3 – will be the new left tackle. Joe Thomas is moving from right guard to right tackle. The new center should be junior college transfer Robb Houser, who went through spring drills.
That's the number of games Pitt lost last season by a touchdown or less.
THE SCHEME: The Panthers employ the same 4-3 scheme that Wannstedt used to help win a Super Bowl as a coordinator. Pitt has finished among the nation's top three in pass defense twice in the past three seasons and last season had 35 sacks, the most for the Panthers in six years. Pitt ranked fifth in total defense in '07. There is a new coordinator: Phil Bennett, who had been coach at SMU, was hired after Paul Rhoads moved on to Auburn.
STAR POWER: All-America linebacker Scott McKillop averaged more than 12 tackles per game to lead the nation last season. His stop of Steve Slaton on fourth-and-3 was a key play in Pitt's 13-9 upset of West Virginia. McKillop isn't the most athletic linebacker around, but he has good instincts and always seems to be around the ball.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: All three starting linebackers return, but it's going to be hard to keep true freshman Shayne Hale off the field. Hale (6-3/235) has 4.5 speed and will push for playing time.
IT'S HIS TIME: A starter in '06, junior end Doug Fulmer's season ended prematurely because of a broken ankle. Then, he suffered an offseason knee injury that forced him to miss the '07 season. He's finally healthy and ready to regain his role at a position that needs two new starters.
STRONGEST AREA: Middle linebacker is set with McKillop, and the Panthers are solid on the flanks, too. Senior Adam Gunn is back on the strongside and junior Shane Murray returns on the weakside. All three started 12 games last season, and they were the team's top three tacklers. In addition, Hale has the look of a future star.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There will be two new starters in the secondary, and strong safety could be the toughest spot to fill. Sophomores Dom DeCicco and Elijah Fields are the main candidates. Both are athletic and physically impressive, but neither has much experience. Last season, DeCicco had six tackles while playing primarily on special teams and Fields sat out a season-long suspension.
OVERVIEW: Seven starters return, so the defense figures to be stingy once again. With the linebackers intact and a good group at tackle – Rashaad Duncan and Mick Williams are returning starters and potential all-star Gus Mustakas is back from injury – running the ball against the Panthers shouldn't be easy. The pass rush could be a problem, though, because of the loss of both starting ends. All-Big East performer Joe Clermond had 10.5 sacks last season. Greg Romeus, a freshman All-American in '07, and Fulmer are prime candidates to take over the vacated starting spots at end. Junior Aaron Berry appears to be an emerging star at cornerback, and senior Eric Thatcher is a returning starter at free safety.
In his first three seasons, senior kicker Conor Lee has converted 83.3 percent of his field-goal attempts, including a school-record 18 made kicks in 2007. He does have to get accustomed to a new holder. Senior punter Dave Brytus had an OK season, averaging almost 40 yards per kick and killing 18 attempts inside the 20. He needs to be more consistent, though. Berry averaged 8.6 yards per punt return, but the Panthers must replace Lowell Robinson as their primary kick-return specialist.
When he was hired, it was expected that Wanntsedt would be a good recruiter. He has demonstrated that with three consecutive classes ranked 28th or better. But his abilities on game day have been criticized. This could be a season for vindication: McCoy is a rising star, the defense is strong and the passing attack should be a lot better. Can offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh make all the pieces fit? While there are some holes on the offensive line, Tony Wise is a respected line coach who has 35 years of experience, including 18 in the NFL. Rhoads' departure could hurt, though Bennett has directed some outstanding defenses at Texas, Kansas State, LSU and Texas A&M.
at Notre Dame
Many observers feel Pitt could be the surprise team of 2007 – a program that breaks out of mediocrity and makes a run at a championship. That may be possible, but a tough schedule certainly will make the Panthers earn that designation. Pitt's opponents were a combined 85-66 last season. Seven opponents posted at least eight victories, and the Panthers play four of them on the road. Still, there is a chance for a fast start: In the first month, Pitt plays one team that had a winning record in 2007, and that's Bowling Green. The regular season ends with a three-game stretch against Cincinnati, West Virginia and Connecticut, which were a combined 30-9 last season. But Pitt was 2-1 against that trio.
Pitt's 13-9 season-closing victory over West Virginia wasn't just a monumental upset. It's also the reason many observers feel the Panthers are due for a breakout year in their fourth season under Wannstedt. While Pitt won just five times in 2007, a nine-win season was within reach – and that was with the starting quarterback and top receiver out with injuries. Now that Stull and Kinder are back, along with 14 returning starters, Pitt is shaping up as a possible rags-to-riches story. The Panthers expect to be good on defense, know they have an exceptional running back with McCoy and are hopeful the returns of Stuff and Kinder will boost a lethargic passing game. Pitt hasn't had a winning season since going 8-4 in 2004, the final season for Walt Harris, but the Panthers are expected to go to a bowl this season. If they fall short, Wannstedt truly will be feeling the heat.