Big East Conference Favorite Pittsburgh Proceeds -- With Caution
"Cincinnati is the reigning champ, that's who we're chasing," the sixth-year coach said.
But it was hard to ignore the obvious once five of his players -- all preseason Big East first-team picks by analyst Phil Steele -- entered the ballroom. In a conference that has to answer questions about its low profile relative to the SEC and Big Ten, Pitt has some legitimate national stars who transcend the Big East's relative profile in tailback Dion Lewis and receiver Jon Baldwin. The question now is whether those players can eclipse Cincinnati and new coach Butch Jones.
The Panthers' main question is at quarterback, where sophomore Tino Sunseri has emerged over junior Pat Bostick. "Tino's the starter, it's his time," Wannstedt said. "I always judge college quarterbacks by can they make the throw from one hash to the other, and there's probably 40 percent of them that can. Tino can make all the throws."
Sunseri's background is particularly intriguing. "He comes out of a high school -- Central Catholic -- there in Pittsburgh. Marc Bulger went, Dan Marino went," Wannstedt said. "When Tino was a senior, he took them to the state championship so he's got those football intangibles, winning intangibles that you need at that quarterback position."
But Sunseri's weakness is the Panther team's weakness -- inexperience.
He's played in only five games, attempting 17 passes backing up Bill Stull last year.
Wannstedt cautioned that the Panthers are young enough for genuine concern. "This is what is a little crazy about these rankings. This is the youngest team since I've been here. We only have nine scholarship seniors on our whole football team, and we have four seniors starting."
One of those few seniors, standout defensive end Jabaal Sheard, has concerns of his own after being arrested after an altercation near a Pittsburgh art gallery. His lawyer is signaling that the situation will be cleared up enough to where he can be reinstated to the team, but nothing is certain until the university and athletic department say it is.
And then there's that monster schedule, with games against Miami, Notre Dame and at Utah. "We feel we have as tough an opener as we've had since I've been here," Wannstedt said about the lengthy September trip to Salt Lake City that awaits his team.
"When we're getting ready for Utah, the opener, we'll do what we have to do personnel-wise, scheme-wise to try and match up with them. And then the next week, it's New Hampshire. What do they do and how do we have to change. That's just part of coaching, making changes."
Added senior safety Dom DeCicco, "Playing a team like Utah that's been in a BCS game, won all those bowl games in a row, you can't take anything lightly. There's no bad practices in camp because the first loss could be the difference between a great season and an OK season."
Ifs, ands and buts aside, with its star players Pitt remains a Big East and national title contender. If that day arrives, and with the BCS' messy ways of sorting out the privilege of playing in the championship game, Pitt could still find itself on the outside. Not that Wannstedt is worried -- yet. He waved off talk about the SEC's seemingly guaranteed right to at least one of the BCS national championship slots. "I don't want to make things too simple, but we're chasing Cincinnati. We're not going to overreact to the Big East preseason polls."