Pitt season preview

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
10:30
AM ET
Today we’re looking at Pitt as the Panthers enter their first season in the ACC:

Pittsburgh Panthers

Coach: Paul Chryst (6-7)

2012 record: 6-7 Big East

Key losses: QB Tino Sunseri, RB Ray Graham, RB Rushel Shell, C Ryan Turnley, S Jarred Holley

Key returnees: WR Devin Street, DT Aaron Donald, S Jason Hendricks, CB Lafayette Pitts

Newcomer to watch: Freshman running back James Conner. The rookie is already getting significant reps at tailback through one week of camp, and Pitt’s running game is looking for answers (see below). Conner rushed for nearly 1,700 yards (averaging more than 10 yards per carry) as a high school senior. He is a big body, but has opened eyes with his athleticism and feet.

Biggest games in 2013: Sept. 2 vs. Florida State; Oct. 12 at Virginia Tech; Nov. 9 vs. Notre Dame; Nov. 29 vs. Miami.

[+] EnlargeIsaac Bennett
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPitt's experience at running back is uncertain, but for now, Isaac Bennett will lead the way for the Panthers.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: How effectively will Pitt be able to run the ball? Not only did the Panthers lose their leading rusher from a year ago in Ray Graham, but they also lost his top replacement in Rushel Shell, who has since left the program. Isaac Bennett heads into the fall as the starter with Malcolm Crockett on his heels, but the experience is limited, and the offensive line remains a work in progress. Three starters return up front, but none of them are back at their old positions. The Panthers are hoping redshirt freshman Adam Bisnowaty and former defensive end T.J. Clemmings will be able to help out.

Forecast: At the very least, Pitt is better off than it was a year ago simply because the Panthers are in their second season under Chryst and have finally started to get some stability. The players and coaches are much more familiar with each other, and they learned a hard lesson about consistency last fall.

With seven starters returning, the defense will be the strength, and it will likely have to carry the load early, as the Panthers will be breaking in a new quarterback. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is the best player on the roster, and he led the Big East with 18.5 tackles for loss last year. He’s one of three starters who return up front, and three of four starters return in the secondary.

Six starters return on offense, but losing the top two running backs from a year ago could create some problems. The staff has been pleased with what quarterback Tom Savage has done this offseason, but the two-time transfer hasn’t played in two seasons. The headliner on offense is receiver Devin Street, who could be one of the best in the country this year after making 73 catches last season. Pitt’s offense won’t have any opportunity to work the kinks out because it opens the season on Labor Day in a nationally televised home game against Florida State, which should again be one of the ACC’s best teams.

It’s not going to be an easy debut for Pitt in its new conference, and the Coastal Division schedule doesn’t get much easier with trips to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Pitt has a chance to be a contender in what should be another wide-open divisional race, but a dependable running game must emerge and Pitt must win the turnover battle in order to have a more consistent season.

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