Cook: Panthers made right decision

Opener vs. FSU bold, wise move

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The Pitt football program has been stuck in mediocrity for more than three decades. It hasn't lost fewer than three games in a season since 1981. It is largely irrelevant in a pro town where the Steelers and Penguins are mostly successful. It even has been trumped by the Pitt men's basketball team, which is in a remarkable run and is headed to the NCAA tournament for the 11th time in 12 years.

Pitt football needs to be bold. It needs to take a chance. It needs to do something -- anything -- to climb into the city's sports consciousness.

That's why Pitt was right to trade a sure season-opening home win against Villanova Aug. 31 for a likely opening loss to Florida State in a prime-time nationally televised game on Labor Day (Sept. 2).

Hang with me for a minute.

It really does make perfect sense.

Villanova-Pitt was going to be a nothing game. Who wants to see Pitt beat a Division I-AA opponent by 40 points? That wouldn't be any more exciting than watching Pitt beat Youngstown State by 40 in its opening game in 2012. That was about as boring as ...

Oh, that's right.

Youngstown State beat Pitt by two touchdowns at Heinz Field in the first game of the Paul Chryst era at Pitt.

In all of the mediocrity, there hasn't been a lower moment.

You might be wondering how in the world Pitt can match up against Florida State when it couldn't beat Youngstown State. It's a fair question. Florida State went 12-2 last season, won the Atlantic Coast Conference title, beat Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl and finished No. 10 in the Associated Press poll. Pitt went 6-7 with an embarrassing loss to Mississippi in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Sure, it looks like a one-sided fight.

But the potential reward for Pitt is well worth the risk of a beat-down. The game won't be played on paper, but rather on the Heinz Field lawn. A Pitt win will be difficult, but not impossible.

The Pitt program should be better in Year 2 under Chryst. Pitt must find a quarterback to replace Tino Sunseri and offensive linemen to replace Chris Jacobson and Ryan Turnley. But the 16 returning starters should be much improved. Chryst should be better after not just surviving his rookie season as a head coach but doing a nice job of keeping things together after that horrible loss to Youngstown State and a thorough beating at Cincinnati in the second game.

Florida State should be worse even though it figures to be ranked between No. 10-20 in the AP preseason poll. It must replace quarterback E.J. Manuel and All-American defensive end Bjoern Werner among many others. It has 13 players at the NFL Scouting Combine this week in Indianapolis. Pitt has one, running back Ray Graham.

The argument that Pitt would benefit from a tuneup game has some merit. It wouldn't hurt Pitt to play Villanova as long as Villanova didn't pull a Youngstown State. But that tuneup thing works both ways. Isn't it better to play Florida State with a bunch of new players in early September than it would be to play the Seminoles in October or November?

Heinz Field figures to be packed for the game, Pitt's first in the ACC. It is just one of the marquee games on Pitt's best home schedule since 2003 when it played Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Miami and sold out every game. Notre Dame also will come here in the fall as will Virginia, North Carolina and Miami. Compare that to Pitt's home schedule last season. Its only decent draw was Virginia Tech after it lost games with West Virginia and Texas Christian, which left the Big East Conference to join the Big 12. It had an announced average attendance of just 41,494 for its six homes games in 65,050-seat Heinz Field.

A Pitt win against Florida State would set up the program for the season. It would put a little much-needed juice back into it. It would make people notice Pitt and perhaps pay attention to it. It would put a lot more fannies in the seats for the remaining six home games.

And if Pitt loses to Florida State? Yes, it would be a bummer for Pitt fans. But it wouldn't mean the end of the season. Chryst is too strong of a personality to allow that to happen. He proved that last season.

Pitt did the right thing.

This opening-game switch is something it had to do.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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