PITTSBURGH - Whether it was a bias against Pitt because it's leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference, or reality for a football program in transition - again - Pitt was picked to finish fifth in the woebegone Big East in its final season in the league.
First the transition: Todd Graham, who spent all of one season on the Panthers sidelines, pulled a Baltimore Colts and left in the middle night for Arizona State without so much as saying a word to his players.
He was dutifully torn apart by the media and Pitt fans for the move, and on Aug. 9, eventually offered his first public retort to an Arizona television station.
He said coaching Pitt was "a struggle" and that taking the job was "a bad decision."
''There are a lot more problems there than just me,'' Graham said. ''I wasn't comfortable in the area recruiting. I made a bad decision. When I got there I didn't realize the issues that were there.''
Sept. 1: Youngstown State6 p.m.
Sept. 6: at Cincinnati8 p.m.
Sept. 15: Virginia Tech12 p.m.
Sept. 22: Gardner-Webb3:30 p.m.
Oct. 5: at Syracuse7 p.m.
Oct. 13: LouisvilleTBA
Oct. 20: at Buffalo3:30 p.m.
Oct. 27: TempleTBA
Nov. 3: at Notre Dame3:30 p.m.
Nov. 9: at Connecticut8 p.m.
Nov. 24: RutgersTBA
Dec. 1: at USFTBA
Win 7, Lose 5
In stepped Paul Chryst as the team's fourth head coach in 18 months. Chryst is the former offensive coordinator at Wisconsin where he was a two-time finalist for the Broyles Award. He led a Badgers offense that averaged a school-record 44.1 points per game en route to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth last season. Chryst admits he'll feel better when he gets his type of players at Heinz Field but vows to not let this senior class down.
Now onto the lowly predictions. They may be too harsh. After all, there's certainly some talent on this roster. Just look at the preseason watch lists. Running back Ray Graham, who was unable to finish last season because of injury, was named to the Walter Camp and Doak Walker lists. Junior defensive lineman Aaron Donald is on the Rotary Lombardi watch list, while two receivers - senior Mike Shanahan and junior Devin Street - made the Biletnikoff watch list.
Additionally, the Panthers have a veteran quarterback in Tino Sunseri, who threw for 2,617 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The fifth-year senior has started 26 consecutive games dating back to the 2010 season opener at Utah.
So there's a hot-shot coach, some high-end talent, and a fair amount of experience there. While the majority don't think it's enough, more than a few high-profile college football writers have called Pitt not just a sleeper pick in the Big East, but a potential BCS bowl type team.
''Whether you are the team picked to finish first or the team picked to finish last, you have to earn your respect on the field,'' said Ray Graham, a first-team All-Big East performer last season. ''We understand that and know we need to work hard during training camp to have a chance to achieve our goals this season.
''The goal is always to win the Big East. That hasn't changed, but you've got to work hard as a team to make your goals a reality. Our first focus will be having a great training camp and then we'll take it week-by-week, one game at a time.''
The backup quarterback spot became thinner when sophomore Mark Myers left the program. Freshman Chad Voytik is taking Myers' reps.
Ray Graham rushed for 958 yards in only seven full games before tearing up a knee. Sophomore Isaac Bennett, who stepped in and ran for 237 yards and a pair of touchdowns, will also see plenty of carries. Freshman Rushel Shell came in with big credentials, having finished his Hopewell High career as the all-time leading rusher in Pennsylvania history with more than 9,000 yards.
Street (53 catches, 754 yards, two touchdowns last season) and Shanahan (39 catches, 493 yards, four TDs) will be counted on to lead the receiving corps, along with sophomore Cameron Saddler, who had 19 catches for 207 yards.
Senior Hubie Graham (28 catches, 325 yards) and sophomore Drew Carswell (6-4, 215) are the tight ends.
The offensive line, which allowed 64 sacks last season, must replace four starters. The names of junior Zenel Demhasaj (6-foot-7, 330), junior Cory King (6-6, 325), senior Ryan Turnley (6-6, 320), junior Ryan Schlieper (6-5, 305), and redshirt sophomore Matt Rotheram (6-6, 330), senior Chris Jacobson (6-3, 295) and freshman Adam Bisnowaty (6-6, 275) were at the top of the depth chart.
Juantez Hollins, who started seven games last season, is suspended for the year because of a violation of team policy.
The defense, which returns four starters, is switching to a 4-3, with Donald (6-0, 270), a mainstay at tackle, and senior free safety Jarred Holley (67 tackles), with a lot of question marks around them.
Senior Shayne Hale (6-4, 255), sophomore Khaynin Mosley-Smith (6-0, 295), junior Tyrone Ezell (6-4, 300), sophomore Bryan Murphy (6-3, 250), sophomore LaQuentin Smith (6-2, 265), and sophomore T.J. Clemmings (6-6, 295) are the top names, along with Donald, along the defensive line. Donald had 47 tackles and team-highs with 16 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last season.
''I feel a higher level of responsibility this year since our defense will be younger than in the past,'' Donald said. ''It will be important to set a tone when camp starts with my work ethic. I've got to lead by example, go 100 miles an hour and let my teammates feed off my energy.''
The linebackers are junior Shane Gordon (6-1, 230), who takes over for NFL player (and Pitt's leading tackler) Max Gruder, sophomore Eric Williams (6-3, 215), junior Dan Mason (6-0, 220), redshirt freshman Nicholas Grigsby (6-1, 210), sophomore Lloyd Carrington (6-0, 180), junior K'Waun Williams (5-10, 190) and sophomore Todd Thomas (6-2, 220), who is nursing a knee injury.
''I've played all three linebacker positions but I love playing the 'Mike,' '' Gordon said. ''You're right in the middle of all the action. There's nowhere anyone can hide. I definitely feel like I need to step up for this year's defense. The Mike linebacker controls the huddle and calls the defenses. I've got to be a leader by what I say and how I play.''
K'Waun Williams was third on the team last year with 64 tackles.
In the secondary with Holley, a three-year starter, and senior Andrew Taglianetti (6-0, 180) are the veterans, while sophomore Ray Vinopal (5-10, 195), sophomore Cullen Christian (6-0, 190), junior Jason Hendricks (6-0, 185), and redshirt freshman Lafayette Pitts (5-11, 180) figure to see action.
Both starting specialists from last year are back, leaving the kicking game on solid footing. Placekicker Kevin Harper is a YouTube sensation who led the Panthers with 95 points last season, and punter Matt Yoklic figure to rank among the Big East's best.