As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each Wednesday over the summer. SU will open its Big East schedule against Pittsburgh at the Carrier Dome on Friday, Oct. 5 at 7:00 p.m. on ESPN.
COACHING CAROUSEL: There has been a lot of change at Pittsburgh the past few years. The biggest (and for SU fans, the most familiar) headline was Pitt announcing it was bolting the Big East for the ACC. That has created more than its fair share of drama, with a lawsuit between the Big East and Pittsburgh still pending in federal court. On the field, the Panthers have had a carousel of coaches in the past two years. It started with the firing of Dave Wannstedt and continued with the hiring and firing of Michael Haywood, whose tenure with the University lasted less than three weeks (due to a domestic violence charge). Todd Graham took over and finished a respectable fourth in the Big East, but the Panthers lost badly to SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl. It turned out to be Graham’s swan song as he left to head Arizona State. Paul Chryst, fresh off helping Wisconsin to back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, takes over a team that is now desperate for some stability from the first time head coach.
WHO TO WATCH FOR: Chryst was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin before he took over at Pitt, leading one of the nation’s most highest powered offenses. The Badgers were 6th in the country in offense, averaging 44.1 points per game, while it rushed for 235.6 yards a game, 11th in the NCAA. Perhaps Chryst is exactly what Pitt needed because the Panthers are coming off a season where it averaged just 24.2 points (83rd in the NCAA) a game. His first task will be to jump start redshirt junior Tino Sunseri, who struggled last year, throwing 11 intercepts to 10 touchdowns. But Chryst should be salivating at the opportunity to feature Ray Graham, who was one of the nation’s top rushers before tearing his ACL. On defense, look out for junior Aaron Donald (11 sacks in 2011).
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh seems to play into Syracuse’s weakness on defense. Chryst, widely considered an offensive innovator with a run heavy offense, will have plenty of backfield options to choose from. Graham, when healthy, is one of the nation’s elite backs. With Graham still out, Isaac Bennett was showcased in the spring game, and carried the ball 23 times for an impressive 121 yards. The Panthers also have freshman Rushel Shell, regarded as one of the top prospects in the nation. With the graduation of Mikhail Marinovich and the early departure of Chandler Jones, the Orange defense is thin up front and may struggle to stop the run. That being said, Pittsburgh is undergoing a transition to a 4-3 defense, and only returns five starters from last season, giving QB Ryan Nassib and company a chance to open it up on offense. Expect a high scoring game, with the Orange ultimately winning its Big East opener, 42-35.