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Is Pitt a legit contender?

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It looks like former beleaguered Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has this program on the right track as the Panthers have won 19 games the past two seasons after going 5-7 in 2008.

Last year Pitt went 10-3 for the first school’s 10-win season since 1981 (when a guy named Marino was quarterback) and snapped a three-game bowl losing streak by beating North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

And Wannstedt clearly knows how to recruit stud running backs. On the heels of LeSean McCoy came freshman Dion Lewis last season. He had 10 100-yard games in 2009 and his 1,799 yards rushing broke the school’s single-season freshman record (set by a guy named Dorsett) and was the second-most in Pitt history and third in the nation last year. Lewis has to be on any Heisman short list entering this season. Only Stanford's Toby Gerhart carried the ball more (26.3 attempts per game) than Lewis (25), the nation's leading returning rusher. Star WR Jonathan Baldwin (57 catches, 1,111 yards 8 TDs) also returns for the Panthers. Few teams in the nation have a better No. 1 RB/WR combo.

The Panthers have to be considered the likely Big East favorites in 2010 with defending champion Cincinnati rebuilding a bit – although West Virginia will certainly have a say in the conference race. Pitt, UConn and WVU are all currently +250 favorites to win the conference, and I’m not sure why the Huskies are co-favorites.

That’s not to say Pitt doesn’t have some holes to fill with five starters back on offense and six on defense. QB Bill Stull is probably the biggest loss, but three offensive linemen and All-American tight end Dorin Dickerson have moved on. On defense, co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Greg Romeus, a defensive end, is back but star defensive tackle Mick Williams and cornerback Aaron Berry have left. It’s not clear how much starting DE Jabaal Sheard will play this season after an off-the-field incident and arrest.

Sophomore Tino Sunseri won the job in the spring to replace Stull. Sunseri completed 10-of-17 passes last year and has a strong arm. lists Pitt’s over/under this season at 8 wins.

Here is the Panthers’ 2010 schedule:

Sept. 2: at Utah
Sept. 11: New Hampshire
Sept. 23: Miami
Oct. 2: Florida International
Oct. 9: at Notre Dame
Oct. 16: at Syracuse
Oct. 23: Rutgers
Oct. 30: Louisville
Nov. 11: at Connecticut
Nov. 20: at South Florida
Nov. 26: West Virginia
Dec. 4: at Cincinnati

The non-conference schedule is rather interesting, with every other game looking like quite a challenge but then two lock wins mixed in there against New Hampshire and Florida International. I look for a 3-2 record out-of-conference with losses at Utah and against Miami (first game between the UM and the Panthers since Miami left the Big East). Really Pitt doesn’t even face the threat of a loss on back-to-back weeks until probably the final four games of the season.

There is no excuse for Pitt not to start 3-0 in the Big East as it will be favored in each of those games. But then comes the challenge with three of the final four on the road and all against teams that could conceivably win the conference. That short week following a visit to Tampa for the Backyard Brawl definitely is not a good thing. Pitt lost last year’s game with the Mountaineers on a 43-yard field goal as time expired but had won the previous two seasons.

The Panthers still had a shot at the Big East title if they had beaten Cincinnati in the regular-season finale last year, and Pitt led 31-10 at home, dominated time of possession and picked off three passes and still lost 45-44.

I believe Pitt finishes 9-3 and does win the Big East with just one conference loss, probably coming at South Florida. And thus the Panthers get back to a BCS bowl for the first time since the Fiesta Bowl following the 2004 season.

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