Athlon Sports Preseason #9: Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is coming off its most successful season in two decades, with a resounding 38ñ13 Insight Bowl win over Oregon State serving as a springboard into 2003. Quarterback Rod Rutherford set a school single-season record with 3,181 yards of total offense.

Backup Tyler Palko, one of the nation's top recruits at any position last season, saw game action as a freshman and could step in at a moment's notice. Tailback Brandon Miree is making a habit of 100-yard rushing games, and Larry Fitzgerald is one of the most electrifying receivers in the game on any level.

Veteran units man the trenches on both sides of the ball, with defensive end Claude Harriott and 6'6", 330-pound offensive tackle Rob Petitti as sure-fire All-America prospects. Harriott racked up 21 tackles behind the line last season. Linebacker Joe Dipre is back from a year's suspension to bolster the back seven on defense.

The 2003 schedule finds the Panthers on the road at Texas A&M, Boston College and West Virginia, and home to Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Miami.

Record player: Larry Fitzgerald's 69 catches for 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns are all school freshman records.

20-year high: Pittsburgh's nine victories in 2002 were its most since 1982.

Conference climbers: The Panthers' 5-2 Big East record was its best ever.

2002 results: 9-4 (5-2 Big East)

2002 Bowl Game: Beat Oregon State 38-13 in Insight Bowl

Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense, both kickers

2003 Schedule:

S. 6 Kent State
S. 13 Ball State
S. 20 at Toledo
S. 27 at Texas A&M
O. 11 Notre Dame
O. 18 at Rutgers
O. 25 Syracuse
N. 1 at Boston College
N. 8 Virginia Tech
N. 15 at West Virginia
N. 22 at Temple
N. 29 Miami

Schedule Analysis: Pittsburgh's schedule is set up nicely for a possible run at a national title. The three big names on the slate ñ Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Miami - all come to Pittsburgh. A late September trip to Texas A&M will be difficult, as will a trip to West Virginia the week after Virginia Tech. The Panthers have two weeks to prepare for Notre Dame.

Final Word: Pittsburgh is poised for an outstanding season. Sometimes, however, expectations can be a weighty burden. Defensively, the Panthers are very solid and could be better than last year's unit, which ranked 12th nationally. Offensively, the skill positions are in very good hands and the offensive line has three starters returning. Pittsburgh had eight games decided by eight points or less last year, posting a 4-4 record in those games. With another year of experience and some key games at home, the Panthers have a shot at improving that mark and landing in the BCS.

To pre-order the 2003 Athlon Sports Eastern edition, which includes a feature on Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, click on the magazine icon below. The Eastern and National editions are set to hit newsstands June 6.

#9 Pittsburgh

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