PantherLair.com's countdown to the start of training camp continues as we look at what the 2008 season holds for the Pitt football team. Today PantherLair.com senior writer Tony Greco breaks down the Panthers' fourth, fifth, and sixth opponents of the season.
Date: September 27th
Location: Syracuse, NY
Rivals preseason ranking: No. 87
Pitt spends nearly the entire month of September at home, save for a road trip to Syracuse on September 27.
The Pitt-Syracuse series has been full of streaks. Pitt won 11 meetings in a row from 1973-83. After that, when you saw Syracuse on the schedule, you'd go ahead and pencil in the loss. From 1984-2001, Pitt beat Syracuse just once. Since then, the Panthers have won five of the last six meetings between the two schools, with the only blemish coming at Syracuse in 2004 during Pitt's run to the Fiesta Bowl. Pitt gets a chance to take the lead in this series with a win in September (the all-time record is currently 30-30-3). The Panthers have just four wins in the Carrier Dome, but two have come this decade, while the other two meetings this decade were double-overtime losses.
Greg Robinson is listed as being on one of the hottest seats in college football, yet hhe remains optimistic. The Orange return a lot of players and some from injury, so Robinson must have faith somewhere on his team.
How can Syracuse win?
Syracuse is going to put all of its stock in its passing game. Andrew Robinson, in his first year as a starter, threw for almost 2,200 yards in 2007, and the Orange passing game produced an average of 229 yards a game, the fourth-highest in school history.
One of Syracuse's other strengths is its defensive line, where the Orange return three of four starters from last season, The line is anchored by junior All-America candidate Arthur Jones, who finished with 17.5 tackles for a loss.
Though it didn't translate to a whole lot of success, the Orange also ranked ninth in kick returns last season. Max Suter, a sophomore from Greensburg Central Catholic, and Mike Holmes combined to average 25.5 yards a return last season, and Suter finished with 1,299 kickoff return yards. The unit ranked ninth in Division I.
How can Pitt win?
Simply put: the lack of a running game from Syracuse, and the non-lack of a running game from the Panthers. The Orange have been employing tailback-by-committee since Greg Robinson arrived three years ago. Sophomore Doug Hogue, senior Curtis Brinkley, and Paul Chiara split reps last year, but the Orange averaged just 60 yards a game while allowing over 200 a game. Even with as steady a passing game, they'll need more rushing to supplement Andrew Robinson.
Syracuse only has 11 seniors listed on its two-deep, but the 2008 team includes 25 players who were either starters or backups within their first two years of eligibility. That's a good selling point, but even as we've seen at Pitt, it's hard to count on your youth getting wins against more experienced teams.
It will be a homecoming of sorts for Pitt running backs coach David Walker and running back Kevin Collier. Walker is a 1993 Syracuse graduate and former team captain who also spent nine years as an assistant coach there before coming to Pittsburgh, while Collier grew up near Syracuse.
From the Class of 2007, former Greensburg Central Catholic standouts Suter and Cody Catalina are working their way up the depth charts. Suter was one of the nation's top kick-returners a year ago, while Catalina is in good position to take over for Andrew Robinson after he graduates.
Syracuse Assistant AD/Footall Operations Desmond Robinson is a 1978 graduate of Pitt and was a member of Pitt's 1976 National Championship team. He got his start in coaching as a GA at Pitt for the 1981 and 1982 seasons.
The first meeting between these two teams was one of the most disappointing losses of Pitt's modern era, a 35-26 loss in Pitt's second-ever game in Heinz Field in 2001. Since then, the Bulls have proven that game was no fluke, as they lead the young series, 3-2.
Last season South Florida climbed all the way to No. 2 in the country but struggled down the stretch. For a team that finished 9-4, they will be out on a mission to prove they are not the team that hit a three-game skid and ended the season with an embarrassing 56-21 loss in the Sun Bowl to Oregon.
How can South Florida win?
Pitt has played 10 games on Thursday night since 1993, but has only compiled a 4-6 record in those games. The Panthers' only road win on a Thursday night was their very first one, a 14-10 win at Southern Mississippi in 1993; in fact, Pitt's first three Thursday night games (1993 at Southern Miss, 1996 vs. Boston College, and 1997 vs. Miami) were all wins. The Panthers have a chance to revitalize the early magic they had on Thursday night, but recent history is not on their side.
South Florida returns a lot from its 9-4 team a year ago. The Bulls have back 10 starters from an offense that averaged 34.7 points and 414 yards a game. The biggest factor is quarterback Matt Grothe, who enters his third year as a starter as one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the country. He was one of two quarterbacks in the country to rush for at least 850 yards and throw for over 2,500 yards; the other was Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. Grothe ran for an 80-yard touchdown against Pitt on the first play of the second half in the two teams' 2007 matchup, which changed the game. That play is a microcosm of how Grothe can change the game.
Pitt also needs to be aware of the fake punt. In last year's matchup, South Florida's Sam Miller took a direct snap and turned it into a 29-yard gain. It was the first attempted fake punt of the season for the Bulls. In the 2006 meeting between these two teams, the Bulls converted two fake punts.
Pitt has also had a habit of beating itself when playing South Florida. In 2006, the Panthers lost 22-12 after two kickoffs sailed out of bounds and the Bulls had a pair of 25-yard punt returns. Field position helped South Florida that day, but Pitt's defense was able to keep the Panthers in the game. Last season, it was the fake punt, Grothe's 80-yard run, and three interceptions that led to three South Florida touchdowns.
How can Pitt win?
One area that South Florida has to rebuild is in its secondary. Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams were both first-day selections in the 2008 NFL Draft. It's never easy to replace any player of NFL-caliber, so finding a pair of starting corners will be priority number one for the Bulls.
The Panthers have struggled running the ball against South Florida in the previous two meetings. With Pitt's depth at receiver heading into the season, this could be a matchup the Panthers could dominate in. If they succeed, they can take some pressure off of LeSean McCoy.
For a second-year in a row, the Panthers have a long bye associated with the Navy game. This time, the Panthers have a 16-day layover following their Thursday night matchup with South Florida.
The way the Panthers handle this long layover will determine a lot about how far this team can go. If the Panthers start off 4-1, or even 5-0, you can bet on some high intensity practices during the long break.
This year's game marks Pitt's first trip to Navy since 1987. With the series at 20-13-3, the Panthers are looking to avenge a 48-45 double-overtime loss from last season. Navy hasn't won back-to-back games in the series since 1974 and 1975.
How can Navy win?
What hurt the Panthers more than losing a primetime game at home in overtime was the fact the Navy offense ran for 330 yards against the Pitt defense. The Panthers showed down the stretch that they learned from their inabilities against Navy, especially against West Virginia, and stopping the run will be paramount in this year's Pitt-Navy matchup, since Navy has led the nation in rushing, in four of the last five years.
Navy is also one of the winningest programs in college football over the last five years. The Midshipmen have won 43 games since 2002, 20th among all Division I programs. Other Pitt opponents on that list include West Virginia (10th, 49 wins) and Louisville (11th, 47 wins).
The Midshipmen have a new coach in Ken Niumatalolo. A coaching change might be looked at as a good thing from an opponent's view, but that's probably not the case, since Niumatalolo has been Navy's offensive coordinator since 2002 and is the brain behind Navy's running game.
How can Pitt win?
This could come down to experience, but Pitt learned a tough lesson in last season's game with Navy. After the loss to Navy, where the Panther defense allowed 330 yards on the ground, opponents (Cincinnati, Rutgers, Louisville, South Florida, West Virginia) averaged just 113 yards against the Panthers. The Panther defense showed they learned from their experience. Much the way they marked the West Virginia game on their calendar to prove they are a better run defense, they will be marking the Navy game in a similar manner.
Navy returns just four starters on offense, but Pitt returns its entire linebacker corps and an experienced defensive line. The secondary might be given a rest in this game when it comes to passing attempts; that being said, a player like Dom DeCicco can come up and play a valuable role in the defense for this game.
What else to look for?
Pitt radio play-by-play announcer Bill Hillgrove has often said Pitt's 1976 win at Navy was one of the greatest moments in Pitt history. In that game, Tony Dorsett ran for a touchdown, and in the process, set a new NCAA record for rushing yards in a career. With all the comparisons to Dorsett, LeSean McCoy could be in line to leave his own mark at Navy. Will the cannon go off again?