Pittsburgh—a perennial favorite to win the BIG EAST—figures to be in the mix to finish atop the conference again, even with a new coach taking the helm.
When Syracuse visits the Panthers on Dec. 3 for the teams’ final regular season game, coach Todd Graham will be looking to improve upon Dave Wannstedt’s 8-5 (5-2) record in 2010 and capture at least a share of the conference title for the second straight year.
Graham led Tulsa to three 10-win seasons in four years, but he also has a BIG EAST pedigree. He spent two years as assistant coach for West Virginia. In 2001, Graham was the Mountaineers’ linebackers coach and was co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach in 2002.
The Hurricanes’ no-huddle, spread offense averaged 41.4 points and 505.6 yards per game last year. Coach Graham will lean heavily on preseason all-conference running back Ray Graham and four returning offensive linemen.
Pitt’s defense should be strong too, returning nine starters. But Graham is moving to a 3-4 base, compared to Wannstedt’s 4-3 base. Graham’s switch puts returning starters at each position on the defensive line.
Pitt was picked to finish second in the BIG EAST preseason poll. It received two first-place votes, compared to West Virginia’s 21.
Pitt leads the all-time series with Syracuse 33-30-3. The Panthers have won six straight after last year’s 45-14 win.
Players to watch (Offense):
RAY GRAHAM (TB): As a sophomore coming off the bench, Graham was second in the BIG EAST in yards per carry. He led the league in rushing yards (922) and touchdowns (eight) for any non-starter. He was the lone scholarship tailback in spring practices.
TITO SUNSERI (QB): In his first year as starter last year, then sophomore Sunseri completed 64.5 percent of his passes and threw for 2,572 yards and 16 touchdowns. Despite losing All-BIG EAST wideout Jon Baldwin, Sunseri will have an experienced group of wide receivers to find downfield, including junior wide receiver Mike Shanahan, a returning starter. Shanahan pulled in 43 receptions for 589 yards and one touchdown last year.
Players to watch (Defense):
JARRED HOLLEY (S): Holley is one of three preseason all-conference picks on defense. He had five interceptions and 54 total tackles as a sophomore.
BRANDON LINDSEY (DE): The 6-2, 250-lb., senior had 10 sacks and 17.5 tackles for a loss last year on the defensive line. He tallied 51 total tackles and three forced fumbles.
Fearless Prediction: The Panthers recent dominance of Syracuse will continue. Graham will run for 150 yards and two touchdowns and Pitt’s stout defense won’t cave to the Orange.
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