It may be an FCS opponent, but look no further than the 2012 season-opener, as Pitt lost 31-17 to Youngstown State. That reason in itself is a lesson that Pitt has no right to look past anyone.
More than anything, even if it's a 7-6 win, Pitt simply needs to start 1-0. One, the program has seen a big momentum swing since it's 30-27 win over Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl eight months ago. A win Saturday would prove the momentum is still there, but would be imperative for one of the youngest rosters in college football--61 scholarship players that are either a freshman or sophomore--out of a possible 85.
"It's really important," head coach Paul Chryst said. "1-0 is a better start, and that's the whole."
A look back at some of the recent openers, or perhaps a span of the last 20 years, where Pitt has gone 13-7 in openers. A winning record over that span, but just a 4-5 record in the last nine.
You might have to go back to the 2006 opener, a 38-13 win over Virginia, to see the last time Pitt had a decisive win in an opener, a game that included a pair of defensive touchdowns.
Since then, the opener hasn't been good to the Panthers. In 2008, the Panthers had similar momentum to what they have now. After ending the 2007 season with a 13-9 upset win at West Virginia, the program was looking to ride that momentum into the 2008 opener against Bowling Green. Unfortunately, Pitt suffered a 27-17 loss to the Falcons. Though they still finished 9-4 that season, that particular opener was a hard pill to swallow.
This senior class has experienced all kinds of ups and downs, going back to 2010. The Panthers opened with a highly-publicized Thursday night game at Utah. Though they let one slip away that night, a 27-24 overtime loss, that particular game was a tough pill to swallow. None of the current seniors saw the field that night, but it's clear that was one that still resonates with them.
Chryst said if there's one thing that makes this team different, or at least gives him a good feeling about Saturday, it's the approach and leadership that this senior group has displayed in the offseason. That, and how others broke in as starters last year, and developed all the way through.
"We'll find out," Chryst said. "You think you know as a coach. Each team is different. Todd Thomas, Ray Vinopal, Anthony Gonzalez, T.J. Clemmings--I think they're approaching this year differently. Those are your veteran guys. Artie Rowell, there's a guy who started last year, so his approach is different, every year is different."
Among some of the other openers this senior class has experienced--a 35-16 win over Buffalo, a closer game than many expected, with all the talk of Todd Graham's 'high-octane' offense that offseason. The loss to Youngstown State is still fresh on the minds of a lot of members of the team, including Vinopal, who still takes that loss personal, but doesn't want it resonating in anyone's head.
"You have to show up and win the game on the date you're playing," Vinopal said.
The Panther roster may be young, but with each passing game--starting with Saturday against Delaware--it becomes more experienced each week. That's something Chryst and the others are confident about. At the very least, they're looking to set a bench mark, and build off of that for the rest of the season. Regardless of the score, nothing is more important to this program right now, than simply getting off to a 1-0 start. The veteran leadership combined with several players in new roles! some new faces Chryst feels is a good combination right now.
"Now, you add a whole other group of guys, and you focus on the opportunity at hand," Chryst said. "We're lucky to be coaching it. They're lucky to be playing it. We're excited."