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

Joe Starkey
| 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?

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