James Ferguson

Wanted: Pitt Panthers To Be Contenders

Created on Jul. 28, 2014 1:21 PM EST

Does the name Tyler Palko ring a bell? He was the starting quarterback for Pitt the last time the Panthers made it to a high-stakes bowl game — and not just another BBVA Compass Bowl, which they played in from 2010-12. The Panthers have only been ranked in three seasons following their 35-7 loss to Alex Smith and Utah in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.

Yes, only three times. Names like Larry Fitzgerald, LeSean McCoy and Darelle Revis have been praised at Pitt for what they did as Panthers, but since then, Pitt has been missing star players who can put it back on the college football map.

When people think of Pitt football, the most recent name that sparks anyone's interest is Fitzgerald, who single-handedly put the Panthers atop the Big East at the time, and in college football in general. In his two seasons at Pitt, Fitz had 34 receiving touchdowns and over 2,600 yards receiving. He was the star that Pitt needed to compete. However, times have changed and the post-Fitz era have left fans wondering when PItt will return contention.

Let's go through a brief recap of Pitt's recent history, both on and off the field, starting with 2005, the year after Pitt made it to the Fiesta Bowl and went 5-6 in a subpar season under head coach Dave Wanndstedt. Jump to 2006 with a 6-6 season, where the Panthers started out 6-1. but lost their last five games of the season and missed out on a bowl.

The only highlight of 2007 was an upset of  No. 2 West Virginia, which was overshadowed by losses to Navy and Louisville. Fast forward to 2008 and 9-4, including a 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl. In 2009, Pitt was ranked and only had to beat Cincinnati to win the Big East, which came down to the last game of the season. If you are a Pitt fan, you know what's next — a botched hold on a PAT attempt by the Panthers, followed by Cincy driving down the field for a touchdown to eventually win the Big East championship.

Pitt was 8-5 in 2010 with losses to Utah, West Virginia and UConn, to scuttle any attempt to contend for a national title. Now everybody's favorite season: 2011, led by Todd Graham, who spent one year as Pitt head coach and then bailed for Arizona State. Good thing he didn't have to be at the BBVA Compass Bowl game to watch SMU run all over Pitt, 28-6. Everyone thought the pain was over, only to see new head coach Michael Haywood stay for about two weeks and then be fired for a domestic violence incident.

The rest of the story is relatively short. Enter new head coach Paul Chryst whose 2012 team went 6-7 season with an opening loss to Youngstown State. I won't go into anymore detail. Last season, the Panthers finished 7-6, but were nothing to jump out of your seat about. They did win the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, so it was not a terrible second season for Chryst, but they also moved to the ACC, which has better competition than the Big East did. 

So what are Pitt fans searching for this season? A contender for a national champion, but for now, preferably a team that just consists of above-average players who can bring Pitt back to dominance on the football field. It starts with a quarterback. Pitt needs Chad Voytik to step up and lead this team to victory. He has weapons in returning starters Manassah Garner, Tyler Boyd and James Conner. It will take these players to put the package together.

The ACC is a tough conference and the Panthers cannot afford to finish at the bottom of the food chain. Chryst needs to get this team back to the top of the college ranks and it has to start now. There are too many big-time players at Pitt this season to not make a run for the division title.