The 2012 season was a mixed bag for the Panthers as they suffered a loss to Youngstown State in their season opener while also taking national championship participant Notre Dame to triple overtime. Pittsburgh ended the regular season on a high note by impressively defeating then-No. 18 Rutgers and South Florida. The 2013 season will be a fresh start for a program looking to make a splash in a new conference.
Offensively, Pittsburgh improved in Chryst's first season in almost all meaningful statistical categories compared to their woeful 2011 display. The Panthers averaged 26.6 points per game, ranking fourth in the Big East, and were stingy in giving up the football by committing a FBS-low 10 turnovers all season. The offense featured a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in program history. The two players responsible for those impressive efforts were quarterback Tino Sunseri and Ray Graham, but both have moved on from the program. In 2013, a familiar slinger in former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage will replace Sunseri in the pocket. Savage has been a journeyman throughout his collegiate career thus far, starting at Rutgers, opting to transfer out west to Arizona and eventually returning back East to Pitt. As a walk-on transfer in 2012, Savage has made the claim for the starting job in 2013 and will be looking to take Chryst's offense to new heights with his big-time throwing ability. The main target through the air will be senior Devin Street, who piled up 73 receptions for 975 yards and five touchdowns a season ago.
The rushing attack will take quite a hit after shelling out two impressive rushers in 2012 with Graham and Rushel Shell. Graham's graduation and Shell's abrupt decision to transfer to West Virginia leave Pittsburgh with questions marks surrounding who will carry the load at running back. Junior Isaac Bennett seems to be the frontrunner for the job after a sophomore campaign with just 29 carries for 141 yards and three touchdowns. The offense returns six starters to help balance the departures.
Defensively, the Panthers appear to possess the talent to be one of the best units in the ACC this fall. The stinginess starts at the defensive tackle position with All-American Aaron Donald and nose tackle Tyrone Ezell. Donald impressed in 2012 with 64 tackles in total, including18.5 tackles for loss. Ezell caused problems for opposing offenses in the trenches with 39 tackles and seven tackles for loss. The secondary may struggle due the dismissal of expected starting free safety Eric Williams during the spring. Senior Jason Hendricks (90 tackles, 6 interceptions) will be relied on heavily to cover up this hole while cornerbacks K'Wuan Williams (47 tackles, 4 interceptions) and Lafeyette Pitts (35 tackles) will be expected to produce as well. With nine defensive starters returning, the defense will be the backbone of the Panthers in 2013.
Historic Context: North Carolina and Pittsburgh have met on the football field a grand total of seven times with the Tar Heels owning a 4-3 edge. The two programs last met in 2009 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl where Dave Wannstedt's squad defeated UNC, 19-17. The only other meeting in the modern era of college football came on Nov. 4, 2000 in Pittsburg where the Tar Heels emerged with a 20-17 victory.
"A lot of times teams get in trouble, offensively and defensively, in trying to be all everything. You know, jack-of-all-trades, master of none. You can't be so limited or simple that you become predictable, but at the same time, I'm very comfortable in letting players and players' execution win games." – Chryst
"If you're going into a new conference and have the opportunity to play the defending champion in a primetime game — if you could say what's a great way to come into a new league, that would be it." – Chryst
Notable Matchups: Pittsburgh opens its first-ever ACC slate against Atlantic Division member Florida State on Sept. 2. The key matchups on the schedule include home games against Virginia, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Miami in the regular season finale. The Panthers travel to face Duke, Virginia Tech, Navy, Georgia Tech and familiar foe Syracuse.