ACC 2013 Spring Football Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

Is Former Rutgers QB Tom Savage Ready to Take Over the Job at Pitt This Spring?

Is Former Rutgers QB Tom Savage Ready to Take Over the Job at Pitt This Spring?

As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.

Team: Pittsburgh Panthers

Spring Practice Start Date: March 5

Spring Game Date: April 12

The Panthers jumped into spring practices a few weeks back, as they attempt to move on without key playmakers on offense, and adjust to a brand-new defensive coordinator as well. All this change is nothing new for Pitt, however, as any fan would tell you. Over the past four years, the team’s employed three head coaches and four different defensive coordinators. Now, replacing their starting running back and quarterback too, it’s the personnel the coaches that must adjust to the new personnel. Will it be an easy process, or another frustrating, long offseason?

As mentioned, the keys for Pitt’s offense are figuring out the quarterback and running back situations. While experienced passer Tom Savage (Rutgers transfer, by way of Arizona) appears to be the front-runner to succeed departed senior Tino Sunseri, it’s not necessarily a lock. In two years starting part-time for the Scarlet Knights, Savage struggled with accuracy (only completed about 52 percent of his passes) and regularly had his confidence shaken by poor performance. Behind him, Chad Voytik and Trey Anderson are also waiting in the wings, though both are largely unknown commodities. In particular, Anderson’s shown some fleeting promise in limited reps these past two seasons, but tough to make any over-arching generalizations after just 35 passes. At running back, on the other hand, Ray Graham‘s replacement is entirely proven. Rushel Shell was impressive in splitting carries with Graham last season, and he’s slated to do even more this season as the feature back (while also spelled by Isaac Bennett). Pitt has the potential to be among the nation’s best rushing teams this season (as they could’ve been last season as well), but a lot of that will ultimately come down to the offensive line push, which is undergoing its own transitions as well.

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2012 ACC Football Season Recap: Pittsburgh Panthers

Pitt's 2012 Season Was a Roller Coaster, But Paul Chryst Has Bigger Plans Next Year

Pitt’s 2012 Season Was a Roller Coaster, But Paul Chryst Has Bigger Plans Next Year

Team: Pittsburgh Panthers

W-L: 6-7

Postseason: 38-17 BBVA Compass Bowl loss to Ole Miss

Top Offensive Performer: Ray Graham, RB

Top Defensive Performer: Aaron Donald, DT

For Pitt’s seniors, 2012 was the end of a three-year battle with uncertainty and mediocrity. Paul Chryst was their third head coach in as many years, and they also made their third consecutive trip to Birmingham’s BBVA Compass Bowl (not the most prestigious of honors college football has to offer). Rather than looking back at their time with joy and gratitude, it’s more likely these players are thankful to leave all the constant upheaval behind — no offense to Pitt, of course.

And it’s tough to capture those consistency issues better than you can by examining Pitt’s offensive attack — and sometimes lack thereof. Unlike previous years, the Panthers actually found themselves most successful this season when passing the ball with competence; or at least so long as they also ran it well. Which gets to the heart of the issue for Pittsburgh. There are no trends with this offense you can really dig deeply into to determine how they lost seven games. Quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for 21 touchdowns versus just three INTs. He threw for 200 yards or more 10 different times, and in those games, the team was 5-5. Running back Ray Graham rushed for 100 yards or more four different times, and in those games Pitt was just 2-2. Balanced or not, run or pass, it just never seemed like the Panthers could find a consistent rhythm on offense. Though when they did — in those rare moments of clarity — this team was one of the country’s toughest to slow down. Six times they scored 27 or more points (5-1 record), moving the ball with ease and seemingly scoring at will. Unfortunately, that success was always fleeting, resulting in a wildly up-and-down campaign that saw them alternate two wins and two losses all year long (up until the final loss against Ole Miss, which occurred following two wins).

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Way-Too-Early 2013 ACC Football Power Rankings

An Early Look at 2013 Shows Clemson to Be at the Head of the Class in the ACC

An Early Look at 2013 Shows Clemson to Be at the Head of the Class in the ACC

When we last left our teams, there appeared to be hope on the horizon. Though the 2012 season was a difficult one, the bowls showed some real glimmers of great things to come, as the ACC racked up its first winning postseason record in seven years. Beyond some long-awaited hope for greater success, 2013 also brings some change to these rankings. Syracuse and Pittsburgh will now actually be participating in the conference, after two seasons appearing in the power rankings despite not doing so. And Louisville, our newest pals set to join in 2014, will also be joining the party — meaning 15 teams will be listed for the remainder of this calendar year (and slightly beyond into bowl season 2014). Cheer up! It’s less than 230 days ’till kickoff.

1. Clemson Tigers (Last Year: 2): Tajh Boyd‘s back, and the defense is improving steadily. So even without DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Ellington, this team will still be fine in 2013. In year two under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, expect an even more aggressive front-seven as the coach works on improving linebacker play in particular. That secondary will still get burned, but be certain they’ve also learned some lessons from last year, too.

2. Louisville Cardinals (LY: NR): After the show Teddy Bridgewater put on during the Sugar Bowl this year, the Cardinals are an extremely hot commodity, and are likely to start strong in their final season of Big East football. It’ll be interesting to see how coach Charlie Strong and his team respond to having a target on their backs from week one, when they’ll likely be handed a top-10 ranking to start the year.

3. Florida State Seminoles (LY: 1): They’re losing a lot on the defensive side of the football, along with QB and senior leader, EJ Manuel. But like those old, Bobby Bowden-coached teams of teams of the 90s, this ‘Noles squad has already reloaded. The offense may take a few to warm up, but the defense will still be very much their strength heading into next season.

4. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (LY: 5): After sitting out two straight years of postseason berths, the ‘Canes are really hoping they’re given a break from the NCAA in terms of leniency. With a ton of young talent eager to get a shot at a conference title, and arguably the best QB/RB tandem in the ACC in Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson, Miami could very well be out for blood come opening kickoff this fall.

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BBVA Compass Bowl Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Ole Miss Rebels

Pitt Running Back Ray Graham Holds the Key for a Panthers Victory

Pitt Running Back Ray Graham Holds the Key for a Panthers Victory Against Ole Miss

After one of the streakiest seasons in recent memory, Pittsburgh attempts to end their string of two losses followed by two wins, as they come up against Ole Miss. This is Pitt’s third consecutive postseason trip to Birmingham, and each time, they’re less thrilled to get an invite. Mississippi, on the other hand, is thrilled to be back in the postseason after two consecutive down seasons, and their fans promise to show up in droves.

Bowl Game: BBVA Compass Bowl

Location: Birmingham, Ala.

First Year: 2006 (PapaJohns.com Bowl)

2012 Participants: Pittsburgh Panthers (6-6) vs. Ole Miss Rebels (6-6)

Last Meeting: None

***

Pittsburgh (previous bowl game: 28-6 loss vs. SMU in 2012 BBVA Compass Bowl)

Pitt’s season, as alluded to above, was as frustrating as it gets, alternating embarrassing losses with triumphant wins. So which Panthers team will we see in this game? According to the pre-established pattern, they’re looking at a loss, but it’s hard to ignore just how impressive they were in their last two wins. Faced with must-win situations in both games, Pitt outscored their opposition by a combined score of 54-9, holding them to 324 total yards while forcing five turnovers (four against USF). In their victories, not one game came down to one possession. In the Panthers’ losses, they saw defeat by a touchdown or less three separate times. And while Pitt’s defense was not among the country’s most talked about by any measure, it’s hard to understand why that’s the case. Only four opponents scored more than 20 points against them, and they ranked 17th in total defense. The issue, all season, has been the team’s spotty offense — boosted up by two games in which they scored over 45 points. In Pitt’s other 10 games, they scored 20 points or less half the time, and struggled to establish a running game; their Achilles’ heel. So long as running back Ray Graham ran the ball well, the team mostly found success. However, when relying solely on quarterback Tino Sunseri (who was stll vastly improved this season), they could not generate enough consistency to pull through.

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ACC Bowl Matchups: Keys to Success

Will Andre Ellington and the Clemson Run Game Be the Key to the Tigers' Bowl Success?

Will Andre Ellington and the Clemson Run Game Be the Keys to the Tigers’ Bowl Success?

We’ll be previewing each ACC bowl matchup individually as the games get closer, but for now, it’s worth at least taking a top-level look. Once again, the ACC’s up against a pretty formidable group of opponents, but all isn’t lost just yet.

Below, you’ll find the keys to each game laid out, along with the easiest path for the respective ACC teams to find success. Obviously, none of these are guaranteed results, and there’s still plenty more left to discuss (and we will as December wears on).

Keys to Success

Belk Bowl (Duke vs. Cincinnati): For Duke, it’s all about executing their passing game against a Cincinnati defense that will be reeling without head coach Butch Jones in the picture. The Bearcats, while very formidable on defense overall, ranked just 73rd in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game (243.5). They got by, however, forcing turnovers in the passing game, and buckling down in the red zone. Cincinnati’s defense allowed just 11 passing scores, compared to 14 picks. If Duke can avoid errors while throwing the football, and live up to their 32nd overall ranking in that department, they can find a clear path to victory.

Russell Athletic Bowl (Virginia Tech vs. Rutgers): The best way to beat Rutgers is by controlling the pace of the game; something Tech has struggled with significantly this entire season. For as well as that defense has played this year, the offense has been another story. Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas will be relied upon to lead a brisk attack and make the Scarlet Knights play from behind. Virginia Tech was also 4-1 when scoring 30 or more points this year, while Rutgers was 0-1 in the only contest where their opponents reached that mark.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Syracuse vs. West Virginia): While Syracuse has benefited from a torrid pace in many of their wins this year, the key this time around will be generating a significant pass rush to pressure WVU quarterback Geno Smith. As the second half of the Mountaineers season and last year’s SU/WVU game proved, Smith still struggles when forced to deliver a quick ball under duress. If Syracuse allows him to stand and deliver to Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin all game, the Orange are certain to lose. But if SU’s Brandon Sharpe and Jay Bromley can put heat on Smith, that’s when the mistakes begin.

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ACC Football 2012 Power Rankings: Week 12

As Has Been the Case All Season, Florida State and Clemson Remain Atop the ACC Power Rankings

We’re just two weeks from the end, and yet very little has been decided in the ACC. The conference has just four bowl-eligible teams, nine squads possessing between four and six wins, and both divisions remain up in the air. While the Atlantic wraps up this weekend, the Coastal will go down to the final game to decide who gets pummeled to represent the division in the ACC Championship Game. On the bright side, the league is likely to have two teams make BCS bowls for the second straight season.

1. Florida State Seminoles (9-1) (6-1) (LW: 1): FSU’s effort last Thursday night nearly ruined everything for the ACC, but thankfully, that crisis was averted in pulling out a very messy 28-22 victory over Virginia Tech. Despite the fact that the ‘Noles are 9-1, there’s still plenty to criticize here — offensive play-calling, coverage on deep balls and overall decision-making, to name a few. As we addressed yesterday, this a team that got extremely lucky, and they must refocus if they hope to make it to the Orange Bowl. The Seminoles are the most talented team in the conference on both sides of the ball. Now it’s time they started playing like it.

2. Clemson Tigers (9-1) (6-1) (LW: 2): The Tigers look bored out there, and the country appears tired of their lopsided box scores as well — unthinkable in other conferences, but in the ACC, that’s the way it goes. So while they’ve won six straight games, all people focus on is the 26-34 overall record that competition has, instead of the 141 points Clemson outscored those teams by. On both sides of the ball, this is a team that continues to get better and better as the season continues. And even if they’ve only been tested once so far this season, they have a chance to wipe out that narrative completely in two weeks, when they take on South Carolina.

3. Duke Blue Devils (6-4) (3-3) (LW: 5): Duke was off last week, so in the Coastal division, that means you won. But, due to upsets around the division, the Blue Devils do control their own destiny now — a weighty responsibility that has seemingly ruined others before them. So which Duke team show up these last two games: The one that lost to Clemson and FSU by a combined 77 points, or the one that’s 6-2 against all of their other opponents? Like the rest of the Coastal, this team is an enigma, but they may also have the most senior leadership to guide them through this mess.

4. North Carolina Tar Heels (6-4) (3-3) (LW: 3): Every week it seems like the Heels fluctuate between terrific and terrible — there is no middle ground. This past Saturday, UNC somehow managed to inhabit both characterizations at the same time, though. While the defense was putrid in letting up 68 points and 588 yards of offense, their own offense scored 50 points themselves. Quarterback Bryn Renner threw for 350 yards and three scores, while Giovani Bernard tacked another two touchdowns onto his own rising total. But due to an inept defense, this team is far from complete. Allowing 136 points over the last three games is unacceptable, and there’s no solution in sight.

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ACC Football 2012 Previews & Predictions: Week 10

Can Miami Run By Virginia Tech Tonight, Or Will the Hokies Shut Down the ‘Canes Offense?

The main goal for the ACC this weekend? Establish some order in the Coastal division. Three teams are still vying for the division crown — which would normally be fine and exciting — but all are seriously flawed teams, and just setting themselves up for an inevitable drubbing in the conference championship game at the hands of Florida State. You want to know how a conference earns respect? By not sending a 6-6 team to its conference title game. I’m all about giving the ACC credit where credit is due, but the best way to combat outside criticisms — especially legitimate ones — is to win games on the field and have a respectable number of “elite” teams. Right now, both of those concepts remain a work in progress.

Game of the Week

Virginia Tech Hokies (4-4) (2-2) at Miami Hurricanes (4-4) (3-2): The winner of this game gets a big leg up in the Coastal division, especially the Hokies, who would own the head-to-head tiebreaker against the other two teams in the race. But even with a division lead, both of these teams are still incredibly difficult to figure out. At times, Miami’s offense appears to be full of weapons and capable of scoring on anyone. But then at other moments, and especially against higher quality competition, the ‘Canes look utterly outgunned and toothless. Tech, on the other hand has its own issues stemming from an under-performing and passive defense, as well as a one-man show of an offense. Inevitably, it may turn into a similar game to last year’s, with one quarterback making a play at the end, while the other simply couldn’t. So is that Logan Thomas or Stephen Morris? With Miami’s inability to generate pressure, I’ll go with Thomas. Prediction: Virginia Tech 33, Miami 28

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