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Starkey: Pitt's record? 9-4

| Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009

Do you know how long it's been since Pitt fielded a truly elite football team?

College students wrote term papers on typewriters and listened to music on eight-track tapes.

"The Jeffersons" landed at No. 3 on the country's most-watched television shows.

An obscure new network called "ESPN" was fighting for its life.

Dave Wannstedt had just been promoted to defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, Steve Pederson was a sports-information assistant at Nebraska, and Jonathan Baldwin was minus-8 years old.

Yeah, it's been awhile.

We're talking 1981, the year MTV was born -- and the year Dan Marino led Pitt to an 11-1 record. The Panthers haven't posted a 10-win season since. They also haven't ended a season in anybody's Top 15 since 1982, when they finished 10th in the Associated Press Poll.

That's more than a quarter-century without making much noise on the national scene, and it brings us back to the perpetual Pitt question:

Will this program ever recapture its glory days?

The glory days, by the way -- assuming we speak of the post-leather-helmet era -- boil down to a span of about eight years, from 1975-82. Wannstedt promised a reprise when he was hired to replace Walt Harris on Dec. 23, 2004.

Specifically, Wannstedt promised to make Pitt a Top-10 program.

"When I left Pitt (as an assistant coach, in 1978) we were a Top-10 program, and I know in my heart we can get there," Wannstedt said early in his tenure. "You know, it never happens as fast as you want. We do have a plan, and it's going to happen."

This year?

Not likely, unless Pitt's iffy quarterback situation pans out.

That doesn't mean it'll be a bad year. Pitt has a favorable schedule, the luxury of playing in the mediocre Big East and a nice array of talent. It should challenge for the conference title and the accompanying BCS bowl bid.

It better.

The headline acts are a potentially devastating defensive line and a star-in-waiting in Baldwin, who is poised for a breakout year at receiver.

If this team is anything like last year's, it also will play with a ton of heart. Pitt could have crumbled after the season-opening loss to Bowling Green or the disastrous meltdown against Rutgers.

Instead, it fought back and kept finding ways to win games in the fourth quarter.

Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was impressed with how Wannstedt coolly handled the Bowling Green debacle.

"I told many people this: I've seen a lot of head coaches where the whole thing would have toppled after a game like that," Bennett said. "I thought the way he handled it -- his demeanor not just with the players but with the coaches -- was phenomenal."

Bennett's defense has a chance to be dominant, though a lack of experience at linebacker and a lack of height in the secondary could prove problematic.

Offensively, you never know what you're getting with freshmen, and Pitt will have two (Dion Lewis, Ray Graham) sharing the tailback duties. The line should be decent. The tight ends and receivers are plenty talented.

Which brings us back to quarterback, where fifth-year senior Bill Stull will start Saturday's opener against Youngstown State, with redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri as the backup.

If Pitt gets above-average play from that position, look out. Otherwise, I believe we're looking at 9-4 again.

That would give Pitt back-to-back seasons of nine-or-more wins for the first time since 1981-82, but it would not constitute a return to the glory days.

Wannstedt's promise would remain unfulfilled.

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