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College

Pitt football in the abyss

| Friday, Dec. 1, 2006

Look on the bright side: At least Dave Wannstedt and his Pitt Panthers won't have to fight inflated expectations next season.

That'll be different.

After all, how many teams have been more overrated than Pitt going into each of the past two seasons?

You might remember the Panthers were ranked No. 23 in the Associated Press 2005 preseason poll. They subsequently opened 0-3 in their first year under Wannstedt and finished 5-6, but, sure enough, received nine preseason votes this year in both the AP and USA Today preseason polls and were picked by media members to finish third in the Big East.

Bad pick.

Pitt lost its last five games to finish 6-6 overall, 2-5 in the Big East, good for sixth place and its first losing conference record since 1999. The Panthers hadn't lost five in a row since 2001 and hadn't suffered a five-game Big East skid since 1998.

But enough with the good news.

It's not going to get any better in 2007.

It might get worse.

First off, Wannstedt likely must part with his three best players -- quarterback Tyler Palko, linebacker H.B. Blades and cornerback Darrelle Revis (a junior who is ready for the NFL).

Breaking in a new quarterback is rarely a smooth endeavor, and Pitt will go to spring camp without a front-runner. Highly touted true freshman Pat Bostick will compete with junior Bill Stull and redshirt freshman Kevan Smith.

Wannstedt has recruited a bunch of apparently talented players and surely will bring in more, but it's not like he's the only coach doing any recruiting in the Big East.

Just look at what's coming back next season.

West Virginia will have two Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Pat White and tailback Steve Slaton.

Louisville is teeming with skill, particularly if quarterback Brian Brohm returns for his senior year.

South Florida is beginning to capitalize on its rich recruiting base, reeling in players such as quarterback Matt Grothe, who might be every bit as dangerous as White and Brohm next season.

Rutgers will return a Heisman Trophy candidate in tailback Ray Rice and several standouts from its ultra-quick defense.

Cincinnati returns most of its much-improved defense. UConn isn't very good, but it'll bring back Hall of Fame quarterback D.J. Hernandez -- OK, he's only a Hall of Famer against Pitt - and bruising tailback Donald Brown II.

Syracuse, like Pitt, is hoping its newest recruits are as good as everybody says they are.

Wannstedt's major ally will be another lame schedule. Fans might not like it, though. It's actually Pitt's least-attractive home slate in recent memory, void of a single attractive opponent. The seven schools that will visit Heinz Field: Cincinnati, Syracuse, South Florida, UConn, Division I-AA Grambling, Navy and Bowling Green.

What, no Slippery Rock?

Pitt's road schedule is a bit of a bear - West Virginia, Louisville, Rutgers, Michigan State and Virginia - but if you're Wannstedt, you might as well play the tougher teams on the road and play the UConns of the world at home.

The general feeling at Panthers headquarters is that 2008 will be the breakout year. I have my doubts about that and about whether Wannstedt will ever get this program to the rarified heights he has promised, but I know this much:

It's not going to be in 2007.

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