Football: A rundown of Pitt’s 2011 opponents

By Greg Trietley

Sept. 3, 6 p.m. vs. Buffalo (last season: 2-10, 1-7 MAC)

An early-season opponent for Pitt for… Sept. 3, 6 p.m. vs. Buffalo (last season: 2-10, 1-7 MAC)

An early-season opponent for Pitt for the third time since 2008, the Bulls have floundered since joining the bowl subdivision 12 years ago, posting just one winning record since then. In their first season after the departure of former Coach Turner Gill to Kansas, Buffalo lost its final seven games and averaged 10.6 points in those games, which included a 42-0 shutout loss at home to Temple.

“We’ve really made some improvements on the offensive line and at the quarterback position,” coach Jeff Quinn said at the Mid-American Conference’s media day. “And our best position has been our wide receiver corps. I’m as excited about that group as I’ve been about anybody.”

Last week, Quinn named fifth-year senior Chazz Anderson the starting quarterback for the season opener at Pitt. Anderson, who transferred from Cincinnati, beat out junior Jerry Davis and sophomore Alex Zordich for the job. He appeared in games against South Florida and Syracuse for the Bearcats last season.

Sept. 10, 1 p.m. vs. Maine (4-7, 3-5 CAA)

The Black Bears compete in the Colonial Athletic Association of the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA. Maine’s conference has knocked off 10 BCS programs in the past five years, but the Black Bears themselves haven’t done so since 2004, when they defeated Mississippi State.

Maine returns nine starters on offense and six on defense, and it was ranked ninth in the conference’s preseason poll.

“It’s about what you’ve done,” coach Jack Cosgrove said at the CAA’s media day. “Our performance last year was not the type of performance that allows you to be successful in this league. We turned the ball over, penalties, lack of discipline in key situations.”

Sept. 17, noon at Iowa (8-5, 4-4 Big Ten)

Only Ohio State had a better rush defense and allowed fewer points per game than Iowa in the Big Ten last season.

Junior James Vandenberg takes over at quarterback for the Hawkeyes, who lost six starters on each side of the ball from last year’s team.

Leading rusher Adam Robinson transferred to Minnesota Duluth in mid-August. Robinson was suspended from last year’s Insight Bowl win for undisclosed violations, and he was kicked off the team after an arrest for marijuana possession on the eve of the game. Marcus Coker, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and rushed for 219 in the bowl, starts in his place.

The Hawkeyes fell short in several high-profile home games last fall, losing to Wisconsin 31-30 in October and Ohio State 20-17 in November.

Sept. 24, noon vs. No. 16 Notre Dame (8-5)

High expectations abound in South Bend, where the Fighting Irish beat Pitt last October, 23-17. Last week, Coach Brian Kelly named oft-injured senior Dayne Crist the starting quarterback over sophomore Tommy Rees, who led the team to four consecutive wins to end last season.

Off-the-field issues overshadowed on-field improvements during the offseason. The program indefinitely suspended wide receiver Michael Floyd in March for a drunk-driving citation, reinstating him in early August. Floyd had 1,025 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns last year.

The Irish have one of the toughest schedules in the country, playing South Florida, Michigan, No. 17 Michigan State, No. 25 USC and No. 7 Stanford.

“I’ll put my 22 against anybody else,” Kelly said at a press conference at Notre Dame’s media day. “But the game’s not played with 22. You got to have other guys right to go. We think we have some areas we need to address that give us more depth. But we’re confident in our 22 against anybody in the country.”

Sept. 29, 8 p.m. vs. South Florida (8-5, 3-4 Big East)

A dark horse pick to win the Big East, second-year coach Skip Holtz’s spread offense relies heavily on the talents of shifty quarterback B.J. Daniels, who threw for 11 touchdowns and ran for five more last year.

Demetris Murray and Darrell Scott provide a one-two punch in the backfield for the Bulls. Murray rushed for 533 yards in a part-time role last year, while Scott, an elite prospect out of high school, transferred to the program from Colorado and has impressed the coaching staff in preseason workouts.

Oct. 8, TBA at Rutgers (4-8, 1-6 Big East)

Five years removed from the awards and big money contract offers that came with the Scarlet Knights’ 2006 season, Greg Schiano is now in the hot seat at Rutgers. His program has plummeted in-conference from second place to fourth to last over the past three seasons.

The Scarlet Knights return 10 starters for a new pro-style offense coordinated by Frank Cignetti Jr., who left Pitt in January to join the program. Chas Dodd, who took over as the starting quarterback midway through last season as a true freshman, returns to spearhead last year’s conference-worst offense.

“I think [the pro-style offense] fits our personnel, but most importantly it fits our personality,” Schiano said at a press conference at Rutgers’ media day. “We’re going to have big plays in the pass game, but at the heart of the matter is, you got to be able to run the football.”

The ground game has nowhere to go but up: The Scarlet Knights averaged 100.9 yards per game last year, 110th in the nation and the worst in the Big East by nearly 40 yards per game.

Oct. 15, TBA vs. Utah (10-3, 7-1 Mountain West)

Sandwiched within Pitt’s conference schedule is Utah, which knocked off the Panthers in overtime, 27-24, to open last season.

The Utes move to the newly named Pac-12 this year, where the door is wide open for someone to claim a South Division title thanks to No. 25 USC’s ineligibility. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow installed the West Coast offense to replace Utah’s old spread attack, which went cold in losses to TCU, Notre Dame and Boise State last year.

As Pitt might remember from last season, it’s tough to get a hand on quarterback Jordan Wynn. The Utes’ strong offensive line held the Panthers to zero sacks in their meeting last year, and Wynn has been taken down just 13 times in the past two seasons.

Oct. 26, 8 p.m. vs. Connecticut (8-5, 5-2 Big East)

Although the Huskies earned their first BCS bowl bid last year, the departures of coach Randy Edsall, star running back Jordan Todman and quarterbacks Zach Frazer and Cody Endres puts them back at the starting gate on offense.

“Right now we are just looking to find out who the starter [at quarterback] is,” new coach Paul Pasqualoni said at Connecticut’s media day. “We haven’t ruled out a thing. We’re going to play the guys all the way around, including the quarterback position. We’re going to play the people that we feel can be productive and help us win.”

Picked by many to finish near the bottom of the Big East, Pasqualoni, who coached Syracuse for 14 seasons, has nine returning starters on defense to work with. The Huskies committed the fewest penalties and had the most interceptions in the Big East last year.

Nov. 5, TBA vs. Cincinnati (4-8, 2-5 Big East)

The Bearcats return starting quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead from the highest-scoring offense in the Big East last year. They also bring back wide receiver D.J. Woods, who had 898 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2010.

Cincinnati returns all 11 starters to a defense that proved ineffective in conference play. No Big East team fared worse against the pass and allowed more points than the Bearcats. The run defense wasn’t much better — Dion Lewis torched it for 261 yards and four touchdowns when the Panthers visited last December.

“It’s one thing to be older,” coach Butch Jones said at a press conference at the Big East’s media day. “But we have to be better.”

Nov. 12, TBA at Louisville (7-6, 3-4 Big East)

Picked ahead of only Rutgers in the conference’s preseason media poll, the Cardinals lose quarterback Adam Froman, four starting offensive linemen and All-Big East running back Bilal Powell from last year’s team. Powell’s 1405 yards on the ground gave Louisville the No. 1 rushing offense in the Big East in 2010.

Junior Will Stein, who saw time in a win over Rutgers in November, begins the year at the top of the depth chart at quarterback, while Victor Anderson and Jeremy Wright will split time in the backfield.

On defense, Louisville will have most of last year’s defensive corps back. The Cardinals shut out both Memphis and Connecticut in 2010 in coach Charlie Strong’s first year with the program.

“I have 25 seniors, and of those 25 seniors, 14 of them were starters,” Strong said at a press conference at the Big East’s media day. “Just laying the groundwork. You have to lay the groundwork any time you take over a program.”

Nov. 25, TBA at No. 24 West Virginia (9-4, 5-2 Big East)

The preseason favorite to win the conference — the Mountaineers received 21 of 24 first-place votes in the media poll — West Virginia features dual-threat quarterback Geno Smith in new coach Dana Holgorsen’s spread offense. The faithful in Morgantown hope Smith will put up numbers similar to Brandon Weeden’s under Holgorsen at Oklahoma State (4,277 yards, 34 touchdowns).

Ryan Clarke will spend time at both fullback and tailback this season. Clarke, who’s been used mainly in short-yardage situations in his career, had eight touchdowns in both 2009 and 2010.

The Mountaineers return four starters from last year’s conference-best defense: lineman Julian Miller, linebacker Najee Goode and defensive backs Terence Garvin and Keith Tandy.

Dec. 3, noon vs. Syracuse (8-5, 4-3 Big East)

A conference-best pass defense propelled Syracuse past expectations last year. Now it’s the offense’s turn to take the next step, as quarterback Ryan Nassib must build off last year’s 202-completion season, an Orange record. All but one starter returns to an offensive line that allowed opponents to sack Nassib 31 times.

“The problem offensively … was that we did not make enough big plays,” Coach Doug Marrone said at a press conference at the Big East’s media day. “We have to create a foundation for ourselves and do it on a consistent basis.”

Defensively, the Orange must replace two veteran linebackers, Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue, who both ranked in the top 10 in the conference in tackles as seniors.

“Linebacker is a critical position for us,” Marrone said. “That’s probably our number-one concern on the defensive side of the ball. It’s the leadership.”