It's never too early to look ahead to next season, especially since there are going to be some changes to both the Big East and ACC.
With that in mind, Heather and I have taken up one very timely debate: Which incoming Big East team will do better in the ACC in Year 1 -- Pitt or Syracuse?
Depends on whom you ask.
Heather says: Syracuse.
Ok, so Syracuse needs a quarterback.
But Boston College and NC State need to start from scratch, and Wake Forest and Maryland are, well, beatable. So my argument starts with the competition in the Atlantic Division, where Syracuse already has a leg up on three of its opponents because this season will be the first in which coach Doug Marrone has a roster filled entirely with his recruits.
Can’t exactly say the same for BC’s Steve Addazio, Dave Doeren at NC State, or even Randy Edsall at Maryland.
Not only does Syracuse enter the ACC in 2013 with an upper hand in stability over three opponents, but it also brings a legitimate running game that will take some pressure off of whomever does start at quarterback (and Texas native Zach Allen, an Elite 11 player, is a pretty good option to start with). The Cuse has a solid stable of running backs, led by 1,000-yard rusher Jerome Smith, and it will have a veteran offensive line with all five starters expected to return. (Justin Pugh has not decided yet if he’ll leave early for the NFL draft, but even with four starters returning up front that will help break in a new quarterback.)
Don’t forget tight end Beckett Wales also returns, and he was an asset in the passing game as well. Speaking of the passing game, Arkansas transfer Quinta Funderburk is eligible to play this year and should help compensate for the graduation of Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon.
Defensively, Syracuse returns nose tackle Jay Bromley to anchor the middle, and while several talented players have to be replaced up front, the Orange rotated plenty of linemen, so depth and experience shouldn’t be a problem.
Special teams will probably be the least of Syracuse’s concerns, as everyone returns, and the Orange also ended the regular season on a positive note with three straight wins to build on, including back-to-back road wins against Missouri and Temple.
Syracuse is joining a new league, and it will usher in a new quarterback, but there is plenty in place for the Orange to have a successful first season in the Atlantic Division -- more success than Pitt will find in Year 1 of what should be a much-improved Coastal Division.
Andrea says: Pitt.
Heather makes a convincing argument about Syracuse, but her initial premise is flawed. How is Syracuse going to do better than Pitt when it plays in the toughest division in the ACC? Good luck getting past Clemson and Florida State, guys.
Let us turn our eyes to the Coastal Division. Pitt was miles better than Virginia Tech this season. Miami should be better in 2013, but will still be pretty young in many spots. North Carolina loses Giovani Bernard, Jonathan Cooper, Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick.
Virginia, Georgia Tech and Duke? Pitt will be better.
So I am going to say it right now, before everybody else hops on the bandwagon: The Panthers not only will do better than Syracuse in Year 1 in the ACC -- they will be in contention for the ACC championship game.
Pitt will be better on offense with a first-year starter at quarterback. The moment Panthers fans have been waiting on is almost here -- Tino Sunseri is about to hit the road, ending his up-and-down career as a three-year starter. Sunseri had his best season to date in 2012, and yet it still was not quite enough to lift the Panthers above mediocrity.
Waiting in the wings is veteran Tom Savage, a senior who was a freshman All-American at Rutgers before transferring first to Arizona, then Pitt. He will have a competition on his hands with four-star recruit Chad Voytik, who redshirted this season. I am fairly confident that no matter who starts, Pitt will get an upgrade at the position.
Losing Ray Graham at running back hurts. But the Panthers return Rushel Shell, who should be one of the top running backs in the ACC. We saw glimmers of his talent this year. As the starter next year, he will be better.
Now on to the defense. While it’s true the Panthers need to hire a defensive coordinator, the new coach is going to inherit what should be one of the most talented groups in the division. Nine starters return. Among them -- Aaron Donald at tackle, Lafayette Pitts at cornerback and Todd Thomas at linebacker. All three should be preseason candidates for All-ACC honors.
Pitt showed marked improvement on defense from Week 1 to Week 12 this year, holding their last two opponents to a combined nine points. I expect that improvement to continue no matter who coaches this group.
Plus, coach Paul Chryst will be in his second year. He will be more comfortable in charge, and his players will be better in his system. For all these reasons, Pitt will be just fine in Year 1 in the ACC. Check that. More than fine. Pitt will be better than Syracuse.