Pittsburgh was 9-4 last season, second in the Big East by one game and made a bowl game for the first time in Wannstedt's tenure. Sure, tailback LeSean McCoy and middle linebacker Scott McKillop are fighting for playing time in the NFL now, but the Panthers' talent level and experience are higher than his past teams.
Everyone will get to see how far the football program has come when Pitt faces Youngstown State today at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.
"My goals for this year, big picture, we're trying to win a conference championship,'' Wannstedt said. "But before we think about any of that, we have to think about what we have to do to beat Youngstown State and how our young guys are going to handle some adversity.
"(But) my goals aren't any different this year than they were last year at this time. I think we just need to take it one at a time and play our best football at the end of the season. I think we need to keep practicing hard and make improvements and get better every week.''
Those goals are quite modest considering the Big East is the weakest BCS conference with no teams ranked in the major preseason top 25 polls. Pitt has the talent to win its league this year and even run the table this season, but that would mean a lot has to go the Panthers' way from the outset.
First, fifth-year senior quarterback Bill Stull has to pull himself together after basically falling apart at the end of last season. If Stull can minimize mistakes and get the ball to his playmakers on offense -- sophomore wideout Jonathan Baldwin, talented freshman tailbacks Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, as well as senior tight ends Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson -- Pitt will score points.
Defensively, it isn't likely to give up many this season. It certainly shouldn't give up any against the Penguins today, because they haven't scored a touchdown against a Division I-A team since crossing the goal line on Kent in 2003. But that's another story. The Panthers are most concerned about themselves and doing what they need to do to be successful.
And unless last season was an anomaly, it says here that it was not, Pitt is well on its way to the level that the school's administration wanted to reach when it hired Wannstedt. Actually, he's not even at the level the program attained under its previous coaching regime.
The Panthers had been to five straight bowl games, including a BCS matchup after tying for the Big East title (but getting the bid), and appeared to be ready to take that next step. Instead, there was regression. Last year's success finally put Wannstedt over .500 as a college head coach, 25-23 overall, but he is just 22-23 against Division I-A teams. And last year's bowl game was his first.
That's why progress must be tangible this season. More wins than losses isn't enough. Pitt needs to win at least nine games again, 10 if possible, in the regular season and go to a BCS bowl game. And win it. Sure, that's a lot to ask, and it sets the bar pretty high. But why shouldn't it be there?
Wannstedt talks about Pitt's tradition all the time, but the Panthers haven't been a national title contender for nearly three decades. Maybe it's time for a return to prominence.
The school's athletic facilities are among the nation's best (all sports are being improved), and recruiting is on an upswing as well (and has to be continuous). Many positions on the roster are talented and deep, especially on defense -- a Wannstedt trademark -- but quarterback recruiting and play must improve.
That brings us back to where we started today. Just how good can Pitt be this season? The answer is in the quarterback play, as all eyes will be on Stull. And if he's unable to get it done, they'll be on Wannstedt to see if he has the stuff to pull the upperclassman and go with untested redshirt freshman Tino Sunseri.
That could be the difference, as Pitt tries to get to the next level. Will youth ever be served under Wannstedt.
It certainly appears to be attainable under Wannstedt, but when it will happen is the bigger question.
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