USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Pittsburgh is the Atlantic Coast Conference's third bowl of porridge – not too good, not too bad, but just right. The Panthers don't threaten the league's top half; the Panthers aren't threatened by the league's bottom half. They're right in the middle, just good enough to remain in focus but not good enough to fulfill the annual promise of next-step existence.
This could change, could change quite quickly, but only if the Panthers become what we think they'll be: Pitt could be on the verge of something impressive.
But it's all tied up in potential. Nine projected starters are sophomores – five on offense, four on defense. Conversely, only seven projected starters are seniors. Take the offensive line, for example: Pitt will start two sophomores and likely lean on a second tier of one sophomore and four redshirt freshmen.
Let's look at this and be positive, as always. For one, this seems to highlight how Paul Chryst and his staff have identified quick-impact prospects on the recruiting trail; contrary to the star ratings and team rankings, the Panthers have done a nice job finding talent and recouping depth on a roster dinged by near-constant coaching turnover.
Secondly, today's up-and-down behavior – only a single three-game winning streak since 2010 – nevertheless holds significant promise: Pitt has built the foundation for a projected rise up the ACC ladder, finding and developing players with the ability to contribute today – if in fits and starts – and the potential to gain on-the-job experience in one of the most competitive divisions in college football.
And there's this: Pitt could always be ahead of schedule. That might be a stretch, but you can see the blueprint for turning just right into something much, much more.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
There are winnable games, however, and then there's this: Pitt's defense is good enough to carry this team. But to say that the Panthers can win six or more games without a strong offense would be misleading – and this offense has some major holes to address before getting started against Florida State in early September.
In a nutshell: Another bowl appearance and a winning season, the latter thanks in large part to four impressive wins: Duke, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Bowling Green. Consistency was lacking, true, but it's safe to say that Pitt exceed my own preseason expectations – if that means anything, and it very rarely does. The most pleasing aspect of last season was in how the Panthers received key touches and production from a talented yet inexperienced younger core; it's this young group that holds the key to the program's projected resurgence. This was on full display during the bowl win against the Falcons, when two then-freshmen – James Conner and Tyler Boyd – combined for 402 yards of total offense. Anything else? Before I forget: Aaron Donald was ridiculous.
High point: Beating Notre Dame. That always feels good, right?
Low point: Losses to Virginia Tech and Navy. Both seemed to take some wind out of Pitt's sails. Don't get upset about a loss to Florida State, since the Panthers should have felt ecstatic about keeping that within 30 points.
Tidbit: Pitt has won 21 games in a row when scoring at least one defensive touchdown. The latest came in September's win against Duke, when a pick six helped lead the Panthers to a rollicking 58-55 win. The current streak dates to Oct. 27, 2001, when an 80-yard fumble return propelled Pitt to a 38-7 victory against Temple.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Carolina Panthers running backs
1. DeAngelo Williams
2. Stephen Davis
3. Jonathan Stewart
4. DeShaun Foster
5. Brad Hoover
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Sophomores abound on offense. One in particular holds the key: Chad Voytik steps in as the unquestioned replacement for Tom Savage, who had an impressive one-year run as the Panthers' starter, and brings to the table immense athletic ability but significant room for improvement as a passer. The athleticism isn't in question: Voytik is blessed with substantial dual-threat gifts, the sort that should both offset Pitt's issues in protection – he's far from statuesque – and add a different dimension to Chryst's attack. Yet there's no doubt the sophomore's passing skills warrant a skeptical outlook: Voytik needs to add arm strength, needs to become more accurate and must be far more consistent than during the spring – and he will eventually cross all three items off his to-do list. For now, however, he's an athlete learning the quarterback position on the fly. He has a great tutor in Chryst, not to mention a sterling supporting cast of youngsters, but we'll need to be patient as Voytik develops an all-around game. There is major potential, however.
A second sophomore headlines the receiver corps. There are many ways to describe Tyler Boyd (85 receptions for 1,174 yards), but one sentence does better than the rest: Boyd was better as a freshman than Larry Fitzgerald – and Fitzgerald was pretty good, I guess. Boyd is already one of the top five receivers in the ACC, I'd say – and might be selling him short – and one of the most promising young receivers in all of college football; his numbers might dip a touch in 2014 with the quarterback change, but he's the anchor of this offense moving forward. While Pitt loses a running mate in Devin Street, I think senior Manasseh Garner (33 for 391) is ready to take on a larger role in the offense. In addition, the Panthers return Kevin Weatherspoon, Ronald Jones, Dontez Ford and Zach Challingsworth, a dependable second tier, and should land immediate help from true freshman Adonis Jennings. Look for Boyd to move around the perimeter and slot in an effort to get the sophomore as many touches as possible. Beyond the receivers, there's a very good chance that increased mobility at quarterback will allow tight end J.P. Holtz (23 for 209) to spend more time as a pure pass-catching option – a good thing, I'd say.
After an injury-hampered spring, Pitt's backfield will be intact come fall camp. A third sophomore leads the charge: James Conner (799 yards) is a bulldozing, 230-pound wrecking ball with just enough elusiveness to earn the majority of carries at the center of Chryst's running game. He's at his best when fed: Conner gained at least 100 yards in each of his three games with 19 or more carries. But Pitt's at its best when teaming Conner with senior Isaac Bennett (797 yards), the change-of-pace co-starter who plays well off of Conner's bruising style. Yet another sophomore, Rachid Ibrahim (136 yards), will ultimately benefit from the first-team touches he received during spring drills.
Defense: So the defense is a bit of a concern, as you might expect from a group replacing a generational talent along the interior of the front four. It's such a cliché, I know, but the Panthers need to tackle Donald's departure with a by-committee approach: Pitt will need to lean heavily on four returning linemen, one back from a year-long suspension, to merely form a cohesive and consistent tackle lineup – and matching Donald's impact is still a pipe dream, unfortunately. The Panthers will call on Khaynin Mosley-Smith, he of the year-long absence, on the nose; he'll get help from sophomore Tyrique Jarrett, who I think can be a major tool in certain packages. At tackle, where Donald once did his thing, the Panthers will rely on junior Darryl Render's ability – and conditioning – to help bridge the gap to a group of younger reserves without adequate experience. It's almost unfair to call this group to task, seeing that Donald was simply amazing, but the decline inside is striking.
The situation is a little better at end. I really like sophomore Shakir Soto (20 tackles), who has the strength to handle the load on Pitt's strong side and the athleticism to bring a touch of disruptiveness to the position. On the weak side of the line – where Pitt could really use some burst off the edge – look for the Panthers to split snaps between David Durham and Ejuan Price, with Durham the more reliable of the pair given Price's injury history. Both should also dabble as hybrid end-linebackers, standing up in an effort to bring more heat off the corner. All told, it's safe to question the viability of Pitt's front four.
Not to mention question the security of the secondary. There are severe depth issues at cornerback, where Pitt will clearly need two incoming freshmen – Phillipie Motley and Avonte Maddox – to contribute from the start in certain packages. Neither should fit into the top three, one hopes, with senior Lafayette Pitts and sophomore Titus Howard the starters and sophomore Trenton Coles the top reserve. The back end brings back stronger numbers but even more question marks, if possible: Ray Vinopal is a gamer, which counts, but he needs to bottle a stronger second half of last season and lead by example as one of the Panthers' few clear-cut senior starters. At strong safety, it's not a stretch to say this defense needs a more reliable performance from sophomore Terrish Webb; the potential is there – as we can say about this entire team – but Webb could've used more seasoning before being thrown to the wolves.
The best news comes at linebacker, where I'd rank Pitt's group as the most underrated in the ACC. What I like most about this group – among a few things – is how the Panthers have corralled a pair of every-down starters: Todd Thomas (72 tackles) and Anthony Gonzalez (79 tackles) can contribute in nearly every package, which is huge for this defense as a whole, and have shown an ability to clean up plays in space – with some help from Donald, of course. One more sentence: Gonzalez is quite easily one of the league's most unheralded defenders. Sophomore Matt Galambos takes over in the middle after apprenticing behind Shane Gordon a year ago. He's ready for the job.
Special teams: The attrition inherent to Pitt's wholesale coaching turnover has manifested itself in some woefully inconsistent work on special teams. But there's always potential: Pitt can nab a strong return, knock out some longer field goals and supply occasionally sticky coverage, but missteps are more common than successes. Look for Boyd to shine, however, and kicker Chris Blewitt will surprise at times with his ability to knock through kicks beyond 40 yards.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: It's no secret this front must do a better job in protection, but the simple change at quarterback – Voytik for Savage, and the increased mobility that entails – will go a long way toward improving last season's miserable lack of production. Yet there are still some issues involved: Pitt is a little queasy at left tackle, where sophomore Adam Bisnowaty's back ailment remains a seemingly never-ending concern, and the left side of the line has a whole could have a dramatically different look. It'll be a new guy at left guard, at least, where Dorian Johnson steps into the starting lineup, and an injured Bisnowaty would be replaced by long-armed redshirt freshman Jaryd Jones-Smith – though it does seem very likely that Bisnowaty is in the lineup during fall camp. Whether he can remain there should be among the Panthers' biggest concern.
At least the rest of the line is secure, ready to take a step forward after last fall's up-and-down performance. Junior center Artie Rowell and senior right tackle T.J. Clemmings are entering their second seasons in the starting lineup, so it's only safe to project a nice degree of improvement – and increased consistency, which is of equal or greater importance. The line's strongest piece is right guard Matt Rotheram, a house-sized senior who earned honorable mention all-league honors a season ago. Two issues? One, the line still needs to improve, which is obvious – and attainable. Two, the Panthers' depth comes entirely in redshirt freshmen and sophomores. It's a young starting lineup still learning on the job; it's an even younger second tier.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Virginia: It's a game Pittsburgh should win, obviously, and you can say the same of four of the Panthers' first five games: Delaware, Boston College, Florida International and Akron – with Iowa, visitors on Sept. 20, the lone exception. But I can see the season fall apart at midseason should Pitt fail to handle the underwhelming Cavaliers, particularly when considering the Panthers' second half features Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Miami (Fla.).
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: My feeling is that Pittsburgh is a year away. That's a copout, of course, but it's genuine: Pitt doesn't seem ready to make any major win-column gains on last season, though it's clear to me that there is a foundation in place that could yield a far stronger degree of competitiveness in 2015 and beyond. It's all about the youth, the sophomores and underclassmen, and how well they develop at the forefront of this program during the next 12 months; if the Panthers stay the course, this program seems poised to battle for eight-plus wins with a heavy level of regularity. It's all about getting there – and staying in the postseason during the interim.
This is obviously a bowl team, aided only in slight part by this smooth first-half schedule. Yet the Panthers should be viewed as a bowl team on their own merit; there's some nice talent here, if issues on both sides of the ball, and enough athleticism and potential to expect several individual players to battle for postseason honors in the ACC. Check out the sophomores on offense, for example, or the senior leaders along the back seven of the defense. Offensively, Pitt has hitched its wagon to the sophomore triumvirate of Voytik, Boyd and Conner; there will be hurdles to overcome, but this is a very solid foundation.
We'll just have to be patient. Voytik needs time to develop his entire game. The offensive line needs additional snaps to become stiffer in pass protection. The younger slice of the receiver corps needs playing time to grasp the intricacies of the college game. The defensive line needs to unite in the push to match even half of last year's production. It's a waiting game, basically, and even if you can see the potential – Pitt could be ahead of schedule, remember – it's my take that the Panthers need another year. My guess: 7-5.
Dream season: Pitt goes 10-2, losing to only Iowa and Virginia Tech, and takes home the Coastal Division.
Nightmare season: The Panthers slide to four wins.
Who's No. 58? This program plays its home games in a stadium that debuted 46 years, 10 months and 18 days ago.