Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the rankings.
Trouble Spot No. 6 – PittsburghThe Panther program and overall approach to the game has changed after the off-season resignation of former head coach Dave Wannstedt (42-31) and hiring of Tulsa's Todd Graham.
Replacing the former Power-I offense is Graham's high-octane, no-huddle, spread passing attack – an approach that allowed the Golden Hurricanes to average better than 40 points in two of the last three seasons under Graham's guidance (including 47.21 in 2008, good for second nationally).
The Panthers 4-3 defense will also undergo a change: Graham brings a 3-4 base though with a hybrid OLB/DE is utilized/featured. In Pittsburgh it will be All Big East performer, Brandon Lindsey.
Situation (date, time, location): September 24, Week Four at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, kick-off time to be announced. The game will be televised by ABC, ESPN, or ESPN.
Pitt/Irish Game Slot: Pittsburgh travels to Iowa for a huge non-conference test prior to Notre Dame's visit in late September. The Panthers then host South Florida in the team's Big East opener.
Notre Dame travels to Pittsburgh following a home contest vs. Michigan State; the Irish hit the road again the following week with a prime time visit to West Lafayette to take on Purdue.
Numbers/National View of PittsburghLindy's ranks the Panthers as the nation's 38th-best team, 3rd in the Big East. Athlon's similarly projects Pittsburgh at #41 and #3 in the conference, while Phil Steele slots Pitt at #27, and as his Big East champions, thus qualifying for a BCS bowl berth.
My View of the Panthers: A dangerous foe for 2012 – and maybe late 2011.
Exiting Pitt's campus over the last two off-seasons were household names Jonathan Baldwin and Dion Lewis; NFL prospects Aaron Berry, Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus; and invaluable college standouts such as Dorin Dickerson, Max Gruder, Mick Williams, Jarred Holley, Henry Hynoski, and Dom DeCicco, among others.
Graham's first-year coaching cupboard is far from bare, but I believe many national pundits (not to mention local Pittsburgh writers) have undervalued the two-year talent drain that's hit the Panthers' program.
Look for Pittsburgh to improve as the season progresses as the skill talent catches up to Graham's unorthodox schemes.
Coaching ElementAn upgrade, at least at the top. Graham won either 10 or 11 games in three of his four seasons at Tulsa, winning three bowl games in the process. In 2006, his lone year at Rice and his first as a collegiate head coach, he guided the Owls to a 7-6 finish and bowl victory, this after Rice finished a lowly 1-10 prior to his arrival.
Despite a reputation for producing high-octane, intricate offenses, Graham's background as a coach is rooted on the other side of scrimmage, a reality that will play well in the Steel City. Nevertheless, Graham's 2010 Golden Hurricanes averaged 41.3 ppg in a 10-3 season that included a home upset of the Irish – Notre Dame's most recent defeat.
Gone from the Panthers' staff, however, is respected defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, whose units held the Jimmy Clausen-led Irish to its lowest yardage output of the 2009 season; then limited Brian Kelly's squad to its third-lowest of 2010. Replacing Bennett is Keith Patterson, who left Tulsa after five seasons as the co-defensive coordinator for the Golden Hurricanes. (Tulsa led the nation with 24 interceptions and ranked third nationally with 36 forced turnovers under Patterson's guidance.)
Trap Game PotentialIt's not much of a trap, or even a letdown scenario – not vs. a long-time rival for the program and against a familiar foe for head coach Brian Kelly (Kelly is 3-1 vs. Pittsburgh; the Irish roster is a collective 1-2 vs. the Panthers with a 23-17 victory last fall).
Pittsburgh receives its first test seven days prior in Iowa City while the Irish hit Heinz Field after back-to-back throw downs vs. Michigan and Michigan State. Additionally, a potentially third physical season-starting contest looms for the Irish in the opener vs. South Florida, a trio of contests that could take a toll on the Irish entering this Week Four tussle.
The Irish should be mentally ready; but could they be physically spent?
Key elements to the Panthers' Defense/OffenseRunning back Ray Graham keys the new spread attack: look for more open field magic, ample touches from scrimmage and double-digit touchdowns for the undersized tailback. QB Tino Sunseri returns to lead the offense – he struggled vs. quality foes last season, though in a disparate scheme. I felt wide receiver Mike Shanahan (a legit 6'5") was underrated and underused last year – he'll get his chance in this offense.
Defensively, the Panthers remain stout up front, but will now feature a hybrid 3-4 with returnees Myles Caragein (a two-year rotation member) and Chas Alecxih inside, and the aforementioned Lindsey providing a rush off the edge (a role in which Tulsa's Shawn Jackson excelled for Todd Graham as a red-shirt freshman last fall). Lindsey returns as the Big East's tackles-for-loss leader with 17.5 in 2010.
Advantage Irish? The Panthers' changes aren't only schematic, they represent a complete program overhaul, both in approach and in attitude, at least at the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame fans witnessed the same last September – and it wasn't a smooth early transition. Pittsburgh has a few too many square pegs it must fit in round holes – and I don't see the pieces squeezing into place by late-September.
Relevant StorylinesA potential night kick-off, which would give the Irish six prime time bouts in 2011…Todd Graham was the last coach to beat Notre Dame, winning 28-27 with Tulsa in South Bend last October 31…Brian Kelly has owned Pittsburgh for three seasons…Notre Dame has not started 4-0 since 2002, and has not won two September road games since 2006.
Puncher's Chance for an upset? A 2-1 or undefeated Irish team will likely enter the contest as a mild favorite, provided Pittsburgh isn't destroyed at Iowa. Notre Dame would have to enter 1-2 vs. a 3-0 Panthers squad for the hosts to be favored in this late-November tilt.
But a home field win, especially in a potential prime time kick-off, wouldn't rank as much of a Vegas upset for Pittsburgh. Graham's unique offense, coupled with returning talent at tailback and along the defensive front wall, plus a fired-up, drunken home crowd, could give even a strong Irish team problems under the lights.
Final Verdict/PredictionSometimes reasonable projections, analysis, and facts don't enter the equation. The Panthers realistically represent no worse than the sixth-toughest game situation on the Irish schedule (hence the ranking), and could rank as high as No. 5 of ND's 12 regular season games, but college football seasons don't evolve as planned.
In summer 2009, I had a hunch the Irish would pound Michigan in the Big House (nope). Last fall, my hunch suggested that Tulsa would give the Irish trouble until the final gun in South Bend (unfortunately, spot-on).
This September 24th contest represents my pre-season hunch for 2011 – I think Notre Dame will bury the Panthers, regardless of either teams' record entering the contest. An early gimmick touchdown by the hosts followed by an onslaught from the Irish, keyed by an imposing defense and physical zone coverage that will capitalize on a still-learning Sunseri's mistakes key the victory for the visitors.
Notre Dame: big, vs. a talented, but not ready Pittsburgh squad.