College football officially starts tonight, and the Pittsburgh Panthers open the 2009 campaign this Saturday at home against the Youngstown State Penguins, Ron Jaworski's alma mater. Pitt starts the season just outside the Top 25, ranked #28 in the AP Poll.
Pitt basically loses its top offensive player from last season in LeSean "Shady" McCoy, now a Philadelphia Eagle, and the top defensive player in Scott McKillop, who was drafted by the 49ers. Pitt will also have to replace their backup running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, and leading receiver, Derek Kinder, both of whom were 7th round draft picks.
When you look at this 2009 Pitt team, you see a very good defense and a lot of question marks on the offensive side of the ball. The main question mark starts with the quarterback position. Pitt has really struggled to find solid quarterback play since Tyler Palko left the team. Bill Stull, the starter going into this season, Kevan Smith, and Pat Bostick have all gotten starts the past couple season, and all have looked flat out bad. Bill Stull, a senior, will be the starter to start this season off. He has not been good in past years as the starter, and there is no indication he will be any better this season. All indications are that Pat Bostick may redshirt this season, which would give him 2 years after this season in order to start. This means that redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri will be the main backup. There is a lot of talk of Sunseri getting into some games, and playing some this season. Sunseri may be the starter by the end of the season if Stull struggles.
At running back, there are also some question marks. True freshman Dion Lewis may be the starter in Week 1. The Panthers backfield also features redshirt freshman Chris Burns, and redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris. These three guys will have to replace the production of LeSean McCoy, who was top 10 in college football last season in rushing yards and touchdowns. Even though this group is very inexperienced, all indications are that they can all play. Pitt will need to have a solid rushing attack if they cannot get much from the passing game.
At wide receiver, look for Jonathan Baldwin to have a breakout season. As a freshman last year, Baldwin had a good season, and caught a lot of deep balls. Baldwin can go deep, go over the middle, and has the size to go up and get the high ball in the end zone. Senior Oderick Turner is also a solid wide receiver on the other side. Pitt also features a very good tight end in senior Nate Byham. Byham has always been solid, but never really had a breakout season. If Byham is used correctly, he could be one of the best tight ends in college football this season.
While Pitt has many question marks on offense, the defense should be one of the best in the country. The defensive line is excellent, led by junior defensive end Greg Romeus. Romeus is a typical pass rushing defensive end, who will get his fair share of sacks this season. Jabaal Sheard, and Mick Williams are also very good players on the defensive line. The linebacking corps may not be as strong as last season, with McKillop gone, as McKillop led the team in tackles the last two seasons, and was among college football's leaders in tackles. Sophomore Greg Williams and senior Adam Gunn should be able to have success behind a good defensive line. Freshman linebacker Dan Mason should be one of the true freshman who will contribute immediately. The secondary is also very good, and led Pitt with 16 interceptions last season. Senior Aaron Berry leads the group, and is one of the better cornerbacks in the nation. Jovani Chappel, and Dom DeCicco also should be strong contributors.
It will be an interesting season for the Panthers, and I could essentially see Pitt finishing poorly around .500, or winning the Big East, and going to a BCS Bowl. Pitt will play NC State and Notre Dame in the non-conference, and gets South Florida, and Cincinnati at home this season. Pitt can put itself in a very good position going into their final three games of the season which are against Notre Dame, West Virginia, and Cincinnati. The final two should go a long way in determining the winner of the Big East. Even though the Big East does not feature any Top 25 teams in the preseason, there are a bunch of teams right outside the top 25, led by Pitt at #28, and also Rutgers, Cincinnati, and West Virginia are right there.
Hopefully this is the year that Wannstedt finally puts his solid recruiting to good use on the field, and gets Pitt a Big East championship and BCS bowl berth.