- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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No team in the Big East had more ready-made motivation this offseason than Pittsburgh.
The Panthers won 10 games in 2009 but remained haunted by what could have been. Their three losses all came down to the final gun, with the most painful being a 45-44 loss to Cincinnati in the regular season finale with a BCS bid on the line. Pitt led 31-10 in that game and had a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, but a botched extra point in the final two minutes opened the door for Cincinnati's comeback win.
"We've still got that tough loss in the back of our minds," Pittsburgh offensive tackle Jason Pinkston said. "We've used that to work harder, to run harder. I think we're ready for a big year."
So, too, do most league observers. Pitt received 22 of a possible 24 first-place votes in the Big East preseason media poll. The Panthers are the only conference team ranked in both major polls to start the year. They return the conference's offensive player of the year (Dion Lewis), co-defensive player of the year (Greg Romeus) and possibly the top 2011 NFL prospect in receiver Jon Baldwin.
What's more, the team that has thwarted Dave Wannstedt's squad each of the past two years -- those same Cincinnati Bearcats -- are going through a coaching transition this season. The opportunity has never seemed greater on the North Shore.
And yet, for all of its proud football history, Pittsburgh has won just one Big East title -- and that came in the watered-down 2004 season after Miami and Virginia Tech left and before Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida arrived. The Panthers shared that title but won the tiebreaker before going on to get hammered by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl.
History is not the only thing going against Pitt in its quest to get over the hump in 2010. Here are four things that could derail the Panthers this season:
1. The schedule: If the season ends with a great record, Pitt will have earned it. The hardest schedule in the Big East includes the opener at Utah, a visit from Miami on Thursday night and a trip to Notre Dame in the nonconference. The league slate features four road games, including three of the final four away from Heinz Field. The Panthers may have to wrest the title away from nemesis Cincinnati in the season finale -- at Nippert Stadium.
2. The offensive line: Last year's line was one of the best in the country, allowing just 15 sacks and paving the way for all those yards by Lewis. This isn't the same line. Three starters are gone, and major questions remain at center and right guard. If Pitt can't plug the middle, new starting quarterback Tino Sunseri will be under heavy pressure and Lewis will have less room to operate.
3. Draft-itis: This is what I call the syndrome when players who are projected as NFL draft picks start worrying more about their individual futures than their current team. There were whispers that this happened to Louisville in 2007 after the Orange Bowl season (the Cardinals went 6-6). Baldwin, Lewis, Pinkston, Romeus and Jabaal Sheard could all be first-day draftees in 2011. They seem to be high-character guys who won't let that affect them. But what if it does?
4. Big East balance: Simply put, the Big East is a crapshoot. Pitt could have beaten West Virginia and Cincinnati with a little luck last year, but it could have just as easily lost to UConn and Rutgers with a little less fortune. Any of the top six teams in this league could win the title and not be a total surprise. The Panthers aren't so much more talented than everybody else that they can just roll through the conference slate. They'll need their fair share of breaks, too.