99 Days Until College Football: Can Pitt return to glory?

Hugh Green of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers 1981 (Photo by George Gojkovich)

Hugh Green’s Pitt Panthers have struggled to regain elite status. Can 2014 be a step in the right direction?

The Pittsburgh Panthers were once considered among the elite programs in college football, but the glory days enjoyed under the reign of Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill are more and more becoming distant memories for fans of the Panthers. Pittsburgh finished the year in the top 15 of the AP poll seven out of eight seasons between 1975 and 1982, winning a national title along the way. Since 1984 though Pitt has played in just one major bowl and has a “BCS bowl” winning drought that now dates back to the upset of Georgia in the 1982 Sugar Bowl. Pittsburgh has finished a season in the top 25 just five times since the 1983 season.

Can Pittsburgh ever get back to competing with the elite?

Anything is possible, but Pittsburgh has a lot of ground to make up before even considering that as an option. Coaching instability has been the biggest hurdle for the Panthers the last few seasons. Following the removal of Dave Wannstedt, the school had egg on its face with the botched hiring of Mike Haywood of Miami Ohio. Haywood never coached a game because he was removed as head coach shortly after being hired due to an incident in South Bend, Indiana involving a domestic violence charge. Pittsburgh searched once again and lured Tulsa head coach Todd Graham to Pittsburgh. Graham lasted one season before leaving for a job at Arizona State. For the third time in about a year Pittsburgh opened a coaching search, this time landing Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst.

Chryst lacks personal flair and personality, but his mindset is simple. Build a solid foundation on the line of scrimmage and stick to the basics on offense. For a program in need of stability, this is a smart way to go. The first year under Chryst ended with a 6-7 record with a loss in the BBVA Compass Bowl, and the second year showed marginal improvement with a 7-6 record and a victory over MAC champion Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Bowl. But Pittsburgh managed to show something in year one as a member fo the ACC and now is the time for Chryst to start building.

"<strongIn 2014 the Panthers offense will be led by Chad Voytik, taking over for Tom Savage under center. The running game, a staple of a Chryst offense, returns the top three rushers behind an offensive line returning four starters and Tyler Boyd is back as the team’s top wide receiver. The pieces look to be there for a decent offense this fall, but it is not exactly an elite offense. If it handles the fundamentals well and can avoid inconsistency though, the Panthers should be able to put up enough points to win most of their games.

Last year the Panthers scored as many as 58 points and as few as nine points in a game against ACC competition. The team averaged 26.3 points per game, ranking 81st in the country in average points per game. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely, but if Pittsburgh can stick with what worked best in 2013 right from the start in 2014 then there is no reason Pittsburgh should not have a formidable offense.

The defense has a big hole to fill with Aaron Donald entering the NFL, but Daryll Render has been warming up behind Donald each of the past two seasons and is ready to take on the starting job in the middle. The Panthers return just five defensive starters though and have other holes to fill all over the field. The one thing Pittsburgh needs to do in 2014 is improve the athleticism and stamina of the defense. The Panthers gave up 27 points or more in six games last season and the team went 3-3 in those games. All three losses came in ACC play (Florida State, North Carolina and Miami).

So what will the bar be for Pittsburgh in 2014? Why not a Coastal Division championship? Given the schedule the Panthers have this fall, that is a pretty fair bar to set. Pittsburgh avoids having to play Florida State and Clemson and most of the toughest division games happen to come at home (Duke, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech. The November portion of the schedule will be the most challenging, with road games at North Carolina and Miami sandwiched around a home game against Syracuse. If Pittsburgh can manage to get through October with just one loss in ACC play, which seems reasonable, they could have the division under their control in the final month.

Nobody is going to confuse Pittsburgh for Florida State or Clemson, but in a wide-open division it looks as though Pittsburgh should have as much a chance to play for the ACC title as any. And that is one step closer on a long journey to being considered among the elite once again.

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About the author

Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.