Top 25 Team Previews
Top 25 Athlon Team Previews: Pittsburgh Panthers
2009 Record: 10-3 (5-2 in Big East)
Head Coach: Dave Wannstedt
Dion Lewis :: AP
at Notre Dame
at NC State
at West Virginia
North Carolina (Meineke Car Care Bowl)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Dion Lewis, RB: He ranked third nationally in rushing as a freshman with 1,799 yards and averaged 5.5 per carry.
Jonathan Baldwin, WR: He beat double-teams all season to amass 1,111 yards and eight touchdowns.
Greg Romeus, DE: The Big East Defensive Player of the Year is a key part of the Panthers' ferocious defensive line.
Dorin Dickerson, TE: He became the first Pittsburgh tight end to earn All-America honors since Mike Ditka.
Mick Williams, DT: The heart and soul of the defense shared Big East Defensive Player honors with Greg Romeus.
Aaron Berry, CB: The two-time All-Big East selection will be missed in the Pitt secondary.
5: Dating back to the 2008 season, Pittsburgh's last five losses have each come by seven points or less. The Panthers' three losses last season came by a combined 11 points.
Frank Cignetti Jr. took over the Pittsburgh offense last season and wasted little time unleashing his skill players. The Panthers averaged 180.3 rushing yards and scored 32.1 points per game.
Tailback Dion Lewis finished third nationally with 1,799 rushing yards and looks more polished and skilled now than he did as a true freshman. A Ray Rice-type, Lewis not only wore defenses down with his combination of power and elusiveness, he also set up play-action opportunities for the passing game. "We want to win the running battle first," said Cignetti, who called Lewis' number 47 times in a one-point loss to Cincinnati in the regular-season finale.
Junior wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin outdueled double and triple coverage all season to haul in 57 passes for 1,111 yards and eight touchdowns. He and sophomore Mike Shanahan -- both of whom stand 6-foot-5 -- could form the best tandem in the Big East.
First-year starter Tino Sunseri arguably was the best quarterback coming out of spring drills in '09, but his lack of experience prompted the coaching staff to defer to Bill Stull. Like Stull, Sunseri should benefit from the Panthers' high-octane running game.
Tackles Jason Pinkston and Lucas Nix return on the line, but the interior will be a work in progress.
Good luck trying to pass against these Panthers. Pittsburgh led the nation in sacks last season and returns its top two pass-rushers in senior ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard. That duo combined for 13 sacks, 22 tackles for loss and 23 quarterback hurries. Romeus considered a jump to the NFL, but the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year returned and will look to improve on his sack total this season.
It will be imperative for Romeus and Sheard to get off to a quick start as two first-year starters at cornerback -- Antwuan Reed and Saheed Imoru (who could rotate with several others) -- adjust to full-time roles. Sophomore safety Jarred Holley is a player to watch for the Panthers, given the ball-hawking skills (three interceptions) he displayed after stepping in as a starter in Week 5.
The linebacking corps could be solid, led by thunderous-hitting sophomore Dan Mason in the middle.
All-Big East selection Dan Hutchins returns in his dual role of kicker and punter. He converted 23-of-29 field goal tries and averaged 41.1 yards on 44 punts in '09. Kickoff returner Cameron Saddler averaged 25.3 yards per return and came close to taking several kicks the distance.
Pittsburgh produced its best season in nearly 30 years with a 10-3 record that included a bowl win, a No. 17 spot in the BCS standings and three losses by a combined 11 points. But coach Dave Wannstedt was far from satisfied. His goal is a national championship.
However, in order to reach that lofty goal, Wannstedt understands that Pittsburgh must first win the Big East Conference title, which has eluded him since his arrival in 2005. After corralling the top recruiting classes in the Big East in four of the past five seasons, this Pittsburgh squad is loaded with talent. A national title will be challenging due to a nonconference schedule featuring an opening trip to Utah, a home game against Miami and a visit to Notre Dame, but the Panthers should finally become the Beasts of the Big East.