ShareThis Page

Starkey: For Pitt, it's Big East or bust

| Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011

Pitt's motto under Dave Wannstedt should have been: "We're not as good as you think we are."

Nearly every year, his team would fulfill the prophecy.

Wannstedt's severe allergy to expectations manifested before his first season, in 2005, when he told anyone within earshot that Pitt's No. 23 ranking was unmerited. At the Big East meetings last August, after Pitt was deemed a prohibitive favorite, he delivered this beauty: "That makes no sense to me."

Now go out and get 'em, boys!

Sadly, some Pitt fans have contracted the same allergy. You can practically hear the wheezing and sneezing as the Panthers prepare to open camp Monday under new coach Todd Graham. Try to tell these people that anything less than a Big East title would constitute a failed season, and they recoil in horror.

That's unfair to a first-year coach!

Graham doesn't have players to fit his system yet!

Give him time!

Give me a break. Graham's team returns as good a combination of talent and experience as any in the Big East. If he's half as good as he says he is — and I view his extreme confidence as a positive trait — then he ought to be able to win this conference with this group of players.

Good for Graham that he intends to measure his first season on a championship-or-bust basis, even if some fans won't. He put it succinctly Friday, reiterating what he has been telling people for months: "Our expectation is to win the Big East. Anything less, and we'll be disappointed."

This conference is so mediocre that media members who cover it picked a couple of programs with new coaches — hired amid utter chaos — to finish one-two. That would be West Virginia and Pitt, respectively. What does that say about the other teams?

What does it say that Connecticut, which won the Big East's BCS bid last season, was barely acquainted with the forward pass and finished in the "others receiving votes" category in the polls, behind the likes of Miami (Ohio) and Northern Illinois?

What does it say that no Big East team appears among the top 25 in the recently released preseason coaches poll?

I'll tell you what it says: The once-underrated Big East has sunk to unfathomable depths and is there for the taking, as league officials eagerly anticipate TCU's arrival in 2012.

Like Graham, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen shrugs off the excuse-makers who worry about new systems and recent turmoil. Hey, Connecticut has a new coach, too, and three other teams (South Florida, Cincinnati, Louisville) have second-year coaches. Newness is not an acceptable excuse in this league.

I asked Holgorsen in a radio interview when he envisioned West Virginia returning to the national prominence it enjoyed under Rich Rodriguez.

"Should be this year," he said, matter of factly.

He continued: "There's nobody on the schedule that I look at and get really, really, really, really frightened about, to the point where it's like we have to line up and play the Pittsburgh Steelers and probably aren't going to win that game. ... The expectations are to win a championship."

If the conference boils down to Pitt and West Virginia, Pitt has an enormous advantage: It hits the road for only three league games compared to West Virginia's four, though the Backyard Brawl is in Morgantown on Nov. 25.

West Virginia appears to have better top-end talent but returns only four starters on defense. Phil Steele, as respected an observer of college football as you'll find, wrote the following in his annual preview: "Pitt has my No. 1-rated D in the Big East, and their offense will be much more potent in Graham's system. Pick Pitt for the Big East title and BCS bowl berth."

That doesn't mean Pitt should be the favorite. Clearly, though, it is viewed as plenty capable.

Just remember, this is the Big East. A program can retool and win it all in the same year. That is the Panthers' mission. They have chosen to accept it. Despite the wheezing and sneezing all around them, they have identified an outright league title, or lack thereof, as the primary gauge by which to measure their season.

Will you?

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.