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2008 Big East Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

Is success on the field a function of recruitng?

The Pitt optimism bubble may have burst against Bowling Green, but I am going to procede as if I had written this over a week ago.

There are several reasons that Pitt is receiving preseason hype this year. They had several close losses in 2007 (although, they arguably were close losses and not wins because of one Dave Wannstedt). The team had several key injuries in 2007, most notably at QB and WR. I'm wary of "improving by default" arguments, but Pitt's QB performance was may have been that bad in 2007. Merely having an effective game manager will be a major upgrade. Most notably, there's just something about a thick mustache that yinzer recruits cannot resist.

Pitt has brought in some very good players over the past few years; yet, they still have a coach that no one quite trusts. I think the best way to see whether talent can overcome coaching deficiencies will be to look at three teams that were in similar situations last season; Nebraska, Ole Miss, and Illinois. Illinois, er, Team Redacted and Ron Zook had been a running joke in college football during the past few years. To their credit, in 2007, they finished 9-4 and made it to the Rose Bowl. Ole Miss and Nebraska did not fare as well. Mississippi football under Ed Orgeron continued to be a complete, unmitigated disaster. Ironically, Bill Callahan was brought into Nebraska a few years ago to bring their offense into the 21st century, and he did not fail in that regard. Rather, Nebraska struggled last season because of terrible defensive play.

Callahan was hired before the 2004 season, while Orgeron, Zook, and Wannstedt were hired before the 2005 seasons (meaning that they would have some, but not total, influence over the 2005 classes). In the class of 2005 rankings on Rivals, Ole Miss finished 29th, as compared to #28 for Pitt, #23 for Illinois, and #30 for Nebraska. All three were roughly in the same range. in 2006, Ole Miss finished at #16, Pitt at #21, Nebraska at #20, and Illinois at #30. All roughly in the same range as far as Rivals was concerned. I'll mostly focus on those two classes, as they would have started to see playing time last season, and will make up a great deal of Pitt's squad this year.

Anyone who's ever read Bruce Feldman's book Meat Market knows the dirty litle secret about these rankings. Not every player makes it to campus. In fact, Ole Miss's rankings were largely a paper tiger, filled with overrated JUCOs and academic casualties that never made it to campus. They often rely on quantity over quality. More important is to look at how many of these recruits ever saw the field for their respective teams.

Per the Pitt depth chart, 12 of 23 players from the class of 2005 are in Pitt's two-deep this year (DE Doug Fulmer likely would be as well, if he hadn't have suffered a career threatenining injury). For comparison, 15/25 of RU's recruits (from a class that the recruiting sites largely did not care for) are either on the two-deep or have already made the NFL. 14/27 from the class of 2006 are on this year's two-deep (or were and have graduated). Overall, their attrition rate from these two classes was more than respectable. What people do have to remember was that Wannstedt got a late start on the class of 2005. It's been in the past three classes where he's really been pulling in talent, and those players are largely juniors and sophomores at this point. The problem isn't necessarily that they haven't developed; it's that the Pitt football program may not have enough time to allow them to develop. Walt Harris did not exactly leave the cupboard stacked when he left.

What about Nebraska's 2007 depth chart? I found a copy on the internet. Nebraska immediately had a very high-profile bust with prep quarterback Harrison Beck. I counted eight players from their 2005 class that were either on last year's two deep or had been and graduated. Seven of 22 from their 2006 class made last year's two deep. Obviously, more from that class will contribute eventually. The point however being that highly ranked recruiting classes aren't an immediate quick fix. Illinois had eight of 20 players from its class of 2005 in its 2007 depth chart, and they did much better the following year, with fourteen of 27. Ole Miss didn't fare much better, with seven of 28 and thirteen of 30.

I had been hoping to find a meaningful correlation here. Something like "Illinois received more contributions from its recruits, while Nebraska and Ole Miss built their classes with smoke and mirrors", but that wasn't really the case. Pitt receiving more contributions from its recruits is a positive, but it's hard to say what extent. Perhaps the other programs had more talent when their coaches took over (unlikely, Illinois and Ole Miss were miserable in 2004).

It would be presumptive to say that Dave Wannstedt can't develop players if they don't come in as pre-packaged awesome ala Shady McCoy. We're still largely talking about underclassmen here. The majority of players are going to need at least two-three years in a program before they're ready to contribute, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that.

I was planning on going with 8-4 with Pitt, weighing my skepticism against their admittedly awesome talent. Things are not off to an auspicious start at this point. I should have gotten off the fence and taken a bold stand.