2014 CFN Preview - Pitt Panthers
Pitt RB Isaac Bennett
Pitt RB Isaac Bennett
Posted Jun 9, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - The stability is there, and now it's time for the Panthers to shine. (Getty Images)

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2014

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By Rich Cirminiello

Head coach: Paul Chryst
3rd year: 13-13
Returning Lettermen
Off. 19 Def. 21, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 22
Ten Best Pitt Players
1. WR Tyler Boyd, Soph.
2. RB James Conner, Soph.
3. OG Matt Rotheram, Sr.
4. RB Isaac Bennett, Sr.
5. FS Ray Vinopal, Sr.
6. LB Todd Thomas, Sr.
7. C Artie Rowell, Jr.
8. CB Lafayette Pitts, Jr.
9. TE J.P. Holtz, Jr.
10. LB Anthony Gonzalez, Sr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Delaware
Sep. 5 at Boston College
Sep. 13 at at FIU
Sep. 20 Iowa
Sep. 27 Akron
Oct. 4 at Virginia
Oct. 16 Virginia Tech
Oct. 25 Georgia Tech
Nov. 1 Duke
Nov. 15 at North Carolina
Nov. 22 Syracuse
Nov. 29 at Miami

Now that Pitt has achieved stability, it wants to locate prosperity.

The Panthers are about to begin their third year with the same coach, Paul Chryst, and their second season as a member of the ACC. That's the good news for a program that dealt with turbulence in the few years leading up to Chryst's hiring in 2011. The concern is that Pitt is solidly stuck in neutral, that area of college football purgatory that produces bowl berths but not much national respect.

Pitt has gone either 6-7 or 7-6 in each of the last three seasons. You are what your record says you are, and the Panthers are mediocre these days. In 2013, they were outscored by a grand total of nine points and were outgained by just 70 yards. If average was a program, its colors would be blue and gold. If the Panthers are going to elevate in 2014, it'll likely be driven by the offense. Yeah, a new quarterback, likely sophomore Chad Voytik, will be broken in, and the offensive line is perennially inconsistent. But Pitt spawned in 2013 a pair of playmaking cornerstones of the future in WR Tyler Boyd and RB James Conner. Boyd was the nation's top rookie receiver, as he paid homage to former Panther great Larry Fitzgerald. Conner wrapped up his first season on campus by rushing for 229 yards in the Little Caesars Bowl win over Bowling Green.

The big story on defense revolves around the departure of DT Aaron Donald, one of the greatest defenders to ever play for the school. His graduation not only leaves Pitt with a gaping void up front, but it has coordinator Matt House searching for new leaders and new playmakers on this side of the ball. Only five of last year's starters are back, and not one of them is likely to appear on the preseason All-ACC Team. The Panthers were vulnerable when Donald was on the field in 2013. Without No. 97, it'll take a collaborative effort just to match last season's numbers.

Chryst has helped lay the foundation at Pittsburgh, but now what? The Panthers have grown tired of six and seven-loss seasons that end in Detroit or Birmingham in half-empty buildings. Pitt will never be Florida State or Clemson. Still, there's an opening in the ACC behind the two heavyweights that the Panthers would love to fill. Reaching that point will be a process, one that won't be completed in 2014.

What to watch for on offense: Chad Voytik's progress as the heir apparent to Tom Savage at quarterback. Savage was a veteran, with the rifle to stretch defenses. Voytik is a very different player, which could mean new wrinkles in the playbook. The 6-1, 210-pound sophomore is smaller than his predecessor, but he's also lighter on his feet. In other words, look for more rollouts and designed runs than at any point since Tyler Palko was still matriculated. Voytik provided a spark coming off the bench in the bowl game. If he can build off that outing, there's an opportunity to be a three-year starter.

What to watch for on defense: Double-duty for the linebackers. If there's a strength on the Pitt D, it's the linebackers. The Panthers are not only experienced at the second level, but they're also versatile. The unit is flush with quality athletes, such as Todd Thomas, Anthony Gonzales and Nicholas Grigsby, who'll be asked to do more than just stuff. The trio—and the backups—will be needed to augment a questionable pass rush, and drop back to support a secondary breaking in two new starters.

The team will be far better if… it gives Voytik enough time to find his receivers. Personnel and coaches change, but Pittsburgh just can't seem to get this pass protection thing down. In fact, over the last three years, the Panthers have been no higher than 110th nationally in sacks allowed. Now that five blockers who started at least three games in 2013 are back, will it make a difference? It better. Sophomores Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson, in particular, are former blue-chippers being asked to grow up quickly.

The Schedule: The Panthers miss Florida State and Clemson from the Atlantic. Right there, it's already a decent schedule. The only two-game road stretch comes early, and it's not bad going to Boston College and FIU. However, the two big Coastal games come late with two of the last three games away from home going to North Carolina and Miami. There's a fantastic midseason stretch of five home games in six, hosging Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Duke, to go along with a tough non-conference date with Iowa and a layup against Akron, and the road game is at Virginia. Basically, Pitt has nothing to complain about.

Best offensive player: Sophomore WR Tyler Boyd. The Panthers won't have experience behind center in 2014, but they will have an elite pass-catcher teaming up with that unproven quarterback. Boyd was revelatory in his rookie year, debuting in blue and gold as if he was channeling a youthful Larry Fitzgerald. Not only is Boyd a 6-2, 185-pound target, but he possesses the enormous catch-radius to singlehandedly boost the completion percentage of a quarterback. If the ball is anywhere near No. 23, he's going to pull it in.

Best defensive player: Senior FS Ray Vinopal. Vinopal is more than just a starting safety for the Panthers. He's also one of the emotional sparkplugs of a defense that'll be desperately looking for leaders this fall. The honorable mention All-ACC selection plays with tons of heart and emotion, intangibles that rub off on his Pitt teammates. Vinopal is terrific in run support, pressing up to give the Panthers the equivalent of a fourth linebacker on obvious running plays.

Key player to a successful season: Junior DT Darryl Render. No one will make Pitt fans forget Aaron Donald. It's up to Render—and the rest of the tackles—to mitigate the loss of the team's All-American. Forget making comparisons, which are neither fair nor productive. Render has the talent and the quickness to deliver the breakout season that that the Panthers sorely need from their interior linemen. The 6-2, 285-pound has been itching for this opportunity to advertise his skills as a gap-buster.

The season will be a success if ... Pitt wins eight games for the first time since 2010. There's no doubt that this program is facing hurdles on both sides of the ball entering 2014. The schedule, though, is brimming with possibilities. The Panthers miss Florida State and Clemson in the rotation, while Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Duke will travel to Heinz Field. Delaware, Florida International, Akron and Iowa comprise the non-conference schedule, and the toughest road games don't occur until November. Pitt could be rebuilding and still have a crack at winning eight.

Key game: Oct. 16 vs. Virginia Tech. The Panthers get a rare Thursday night national TV audience to advertise their progress under Chryst. And they'll do it as a host to one of the ACC's traditional powers of the past decade. If Pitt can capture a momentum-building win in this first of three straight league home games, it could catapult the team into Coastal Division contention.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Rushing yards per game: Pittsburgh 125.7 – Opponents 149.0
- Sacks: Pittsburgh 25 – Opponents 43
- Scoring: Pittsburgh 342 - Opponents 353

- 2014 Pitt Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players 
2014 Depth Chart & Unit Rankings To Come This Summer