Year 1 in the ACC was underwhelming for Panthers fans. They opened their tenure in the ACC with a Labor Day loss against Florida State. The following week they beat New Mexico 49-27, then eventual Coastal Champions Duke 58-55, before regressing to beat a bad Virginia team 14-3. A 3-1 start led into a 4-5 finish, with losses to Virginia Tech, Navy, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Miami, but a win at home over reigning national runners-up Notre Dame before winning the Little Caesar's Bowl over Bowling Green. Along the way, they were led by senior journeyman QB Tom Savage, who was on his third stop after tenures at Rutgers and Arizona.
Savage was a fourth-round pick to the Houston Texans, but leaves behind the leading rusher and receiver, freshmen James Conner and Tyler Boyd, respectively. The Panthers lose their second-leading receiver, Devin Street, to graduation, but otherwise bring back almost all of their offensive firepower. Defensively is another situation. The Panthers lost defensive superstar DT Aaron Donald to graduation (he would be picked in the Draft's first round by the Rams), along with leading tackler SS Jason Hendricks. The Panthers return 6 starters on defense and 7 on offense, but spread out among all of their position groupings, not losing more than 2 starters in any group.
Pittsburgh enters Year 3 under former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who is a net 13-13 in his first two seasons at the helms. He brings back the entire coaching staff from last year, featuring offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and defensive coordinator Matt House. System-wise, everything will be consistent with what you've seen in the first two years of the Chryst tenure -- a pro-style offense (with a few spread elements tossed in) and a 4-3 defense. Projected starting QB Chad Voytik has athleticism that might influence some different stylings at time, but expect for him to be more of a pass-first, pocket-passer type who has scrambling ability if an opportunity is to present itself.
Pittsburgh's 2014 recruiting class was ranked 44th nationally and featured four 4-star players, including offensive linemen Alex Bookser and Mike Grimm. The Panthers are looking to replace two starters on the offensive line, meaning one or both of them could end up seeing some time (or even start). However, this team is generally deep with experience, meaning there won't be a ton of room for freshmen to play.
RB James Conner: As a true freshman, he led the 2013 Panthers squad in rushing (by a margin of about 6 feet), and only needed 146 carries to do it -- good for a 5.5 yards per carry average. Against Georgia Tech he had a whopping 3 yards on 8 carries, but went over 100 yards four times over the season, including a 229 yard performance against Bowling Green to punctuate his season.
WR Tyler Boyd: As a true freshman himself, he led the 2013 Panthers in receptions (85) and receiving yards (1174), and tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns (7). He thrashed Georgia Tech with 11 receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown, just one of his five 100-yard receiving games. Expect Boyd to be even better this year as he continues to grow and learn.
OLB Anthony Gonzalez: A rising senior, Gonzalez was third on the team in tackles last year with 79, along with 1 interception and 5 pass break-ups. He'll look to improve on those numbers this year, especially as he looks to back up a defensive front that is losing its two inside men.
FS Ray Vinopal: Also a rising senior, Vinopal is the team's leading returning tackler. Last year, his 83 tackles were trumped only by departed SS Jason Hendricks' 85. The former 2-star recruit was the secondary's leader with 1.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles, and tied for second with 6 pass break-ups to boot. Beware passing in his area of the field.
Pittsburgh will see an interesting mix of young talent and seasoned veterans. Particularly at offensive skill positions, the Panthers will be driven by young guns with a lot of upside. Defensively, they will be anchored by veteran players at linebacker and in the secondary. In between, they have replacements that need to be made -- particularly at quarterback, two spots each on the offensive and defensive lines, and in the secondary -- but there remains a solid foundation of a team that could see another improvement in year 3 of the Chryst era.