For the first time since 2010, one of Pitt's biggest questions heading into the season will not be how a new coach can lead the Panthers in his first season on the job.
Paul Chryst is back for a second season, but the Panthers will face the challenge of a new conference with tougher opposition. They'll receive their welcome to the Atlantic Coast Conference from defending league champion Florida State, and also have marquee games at Heinz Field against Notre Dame and Miami in what is one of the most attractive home schedules in recent memory.
On the field, the Panthers likely will rely on a defense that returns eight starters, while an offense that will be breaking in new starters at virtually every key position finds its way early in the season.
The Pitt opener
• Game: Pitt vs. Florida State in ACC debut.
• Where: Heinz Field.
• When: 8 p.m., Sept. 2.
• TV: ESPN.
Those position battles will be sorted out in the coming weeks as Pitt goes through its fall camp, which opens Tuesday.
Here are the five most pressing questions facing the Panthers in the run-up to the 2013 season:
1. Can Tom Savage lock up the starting quarterback spot?
Chryst has been quiet publicly when asked to handicap his team's quarterback battle. Savage has the big frame and arm that would seem to mesh well with Chryst's pro-style system, and the two-time transfer (Rutgers, Arizona) took most of the first team snaps in spring practices. He hasn't played a competitive snap since 2010, but ran the scout team last season and has drawn rave reviews from teammates. The other man in the mix is redshirt freshman Chad Voytik. Listed at 6 feet 1, Voytik was originally recruited for former coach Todd Graham's spread offense, but has made the transition to Chryst's system. Chryst has said size isn't a big factor when choosing his quarterback, and cited success he had with smaller signal-callers at Oregon State and Wisconsin. Voytik took mostly second-team snaps in the spring, but shined when he received the majority of playing time in the spring game, completing 27 of 33 passes for 358 yards and three touchdowns.
2. Can Pitt's running backs make up for the loss of Rushel Shell?
When asked at ACC media days last month about his running game, Chryst was honest in his assessment. "I'm not going to say I'm worried," he said. "But I'm not going to say, 'Boy, I feel great about it right now.' " The Panthers will turn to the duo of junior Isaac Bennett and redshirt sophomore Malcolm Crockett to offset the loss of Shell, the presumed starter heading into spring. Bennett and Crockett combined for 191 yards and three touchdowns on 41 carries last season. Pitt will likely seek a contribution from incoming freshman James Conner, also, who at 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds can be a big, physical back.
3. Can the defense carry the load?
One of the key factors in Pitt's best performances last year -- notably the win against Virginia Tech and the near-upset at Notre Dame -- was the defense creating turnovers at critical points in the game. The Panthers ranked 15th nationally in turnover margin last year and 17th in total defense. The unit returns eight of 11 starters, and will likely have to keep the Panthers in a couple of games as the offense sorts itself out. Starting at the front, defensive tackle Aaron Donald (18.5 tackles for loss last season) can be one of the most disruptive players in the ACC and anchor the defensive line. On the back end, senior K'Waun Williams and redshirt sophomore Lafayette Pitts are firmly entrenched at the cornerback spots and looked strong last year providing lockdown coverage in man-to-man. There are some concerns with the defense, notably the inexperience of new coordinator Matt House and a lack of depth along the defensive line, but overall the unit should be a strength for the Panthers in 2013.
4. Can freshmen make an immediate impact?
Two of Pitt's most high-profile recruits from this incoming class, WPIAL products wide receiver Tyler Boyd (Clairton) and offensive lineman Dorian Johnson (Belle Vernon) enter at positions where the Panthers don't have a firmly entrenched starter. Boyd will be among the contenders for the vacant wide receiver spot opposite Devin Street and Johnson will likely challenge T.J. Clemmings and Juantez Hollins at right tackle. Both will likely play this year, but there's a good chance they could also be starters when Pitt takes the field against Florida State.
5. How will the Panthers adjust to the ACC?
Chryst was asked this question, or some variation of it, more times than he can count last month at ACC media days. The Panthers have a daunting home slate and also must navigate road trips to Virginia Tech, Duke and Georgia Tech, all of which played in bowl games last year. Add in last year's national runner-up Notre Dame, and it looks as if Pitt won't get many weeks off this season. The Panthers certainly have the chance to make some waves with several high-profile games, but, overall, six wins and a bowl bid would have to be considered a successful season with this schedule.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published August 4, 2013 4:00 AM