Regardless of what happens Saturday when the Pitt Panthers (6-5, 4-2) play at Cincinnati (4-7, 2-4) in their season finale, there is no other way to label this season as anything other than a major disappointment.
And that label will be applicable even if the Panthers beat the Bearcats and then get help with losses by West Virginia and Connecticut and thus are crowned Big East Conference champions, earning a trip to a Bowl Championship Series game.
That's because this was a team that was picked by nearly everyone to win the Big East and finish among the top 15 teams in Division I-A, plus have a number of players compete for national awards.
But several key injuries, a 1-5 record in nationally televised games and a season in which the Panthers seemed to specialize in mistakes derailed all of that. .
The Panthers' string of poor performances and a third consecutive season of coming up short of a BCS game has led to speculation that head coach Dave Wannstedt's job could be in jeopardy. But he said Monday he has no concerns about his job security and is confident he will be back next year to continue building the program.
"We're trying to win Saturday," Wannstedt said at his weekly news conference. "I'm not concerned with [job security], we're just trying to beat Cincinnati. Trust me. We aren't going to graduate many players, we have a great future and a lot of recruits committed and a good young team coming back, really.
"Ultimately, it is my responsibility as the head coach and our responsibility as a staff to get this team ready to play each week, and right now that means getting this team ready to play as well as we can against Cincinnati and then in a bowl game. I promise you, that nobody out there is more disappointed than I am in how this season has gone and I am focused on getting this program back on track."
Wannstedt said he understands fan frustrations and has been dissatisfied by the lack of progress but said there have been some things that have worked against the Panthers.
"We obviously had higher expectations," he said. "I really thought that we felt like we needed to get a big year out of our best defensive player, Greg Romeus, and the way that he trained we believed that we would get a first-round draft pick-type of year out of him.
"[Romeus getting hurt] was a little bit disappointing. I used the phrase in training camp that [injured player] Dan Mason was a linebacker who would fit into the Scott McKillop or H.B. Blades mold. Dan Mason has that attitude and ability. We had a couple of little setbacks there, but then Brandon Lindsey and some other guys stepped up.
"And obviously, with Dion Lewis and the expectations and all the hype -- I don't think anything that was said or written was out of line with his performance last year. I think it was all legitimate. For whatever reason, we just never get on track with our running game. There were some setbacks there."
Wannstedt said that beyond injuries to Romeus and Mason, the Panthers also dropped a few games early because the offense struggled as sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri was settling into his role.
Wannstedt said he expected there would be some growing pains and he tried to warn people in the preseason who had such high expectations that there would be a learning curve for his young team.
"The whole thing with the development of a new quarterback, the three new linemen and the new tight end and a new wide receiver," Wannstedt said. "I knew it would be difficult. I knew that we had the least amount of starters returning in the conference, out of anybody. I knew we were a young team and that it would be a work in progress. [But] you don't expect to turn the football over.
"That's the one thing that really disappoints me. For the most part, over the last three years we've always run the ball and protected the football. We might not have been as wide-open as we would have liked, but we've always protected the football very well."
A prime example of how the turnover bug doomed the Panthers was in a 35-10 loss Friday to West Virginia. Pitt turned the ball over three times in the first half despite dominating the statistics and trailed, 14-7, at the half.
"I'd have to go through each turnover [to figure out what the cause is]," Wannstedt said. "But I can tell you that Dion Lewis carried the football almost 300 times last year and lost one fumble in the bowl game against North Carolina -- he fumbled out of the end zone. It's not a fumbling problem with Dion Lewis, but for some reason he lost a couple on Friday. That's not a problem with him.
"But with the quarterback scenario, I think that Tino Sunseri really played well [against West Virginia]. When you look at the overall game, yes, the one turnover was costly, but he did a lot of good things in that game. There were a lot of plays left on the field that we can improve on, and will. Unfortunately you throw an interception, and it gets run back to the 2-yard line. That's a tough deal.
"You have to keep coaching and keep believing that you're going to eliminate those problems."
Wannstedt said there has been some good progress and regardless of what happens Saturday, the coaches will get an extra three weeks of practice for a bowl game to continue that development.
"The progress that our kids made at certain positions -- Jordan Gibbs, Mike Cruz, Devin Street, Brandon Lindsey, Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts -- all these guys are new starters," he said. "You cannot get enough [extra practice]. Anything that we can get done in addition to training camp and the spring is valuable. The [benefit of a] bowl game will be in those areas from the standpoint of player development.
"Right now we only played four or five out of the 25 freshmen, so we have roughly 20 players that we've redshirted and who have waited their turn. All of a sudden they come alive and the competition increases. We'll use the time wisely."
NOTES -- Pitt had one injury in the West Virginia game, punt/kick returner Cam Saddler injured his back and is day to day. ... Wannstedt said right guard Lucas Nix did not start the West Virginia game for disciplinary reasons.. ... The Cincinnati game will be broadcast on ESPN.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720.