The Pittsburgh Panthers enter the season with more question marks than a book of trivia. Eight starters are gone on offense, while four departed on defense. Even super wideout Larry Fitzgerald, the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2003, jumped ship after just two seasons, leaving coach Walt Harris with his biggest rebuilding project since arriving in 1997.
"You always welcome the challenge," Harris said. "Does it make you nervous? You're not being honest if you say losing so many offensive starters doesn't make you nervous."
Harris will attempt to lead Pittsburgh to its fifth consecutive bowl game, despite having almost no experience at quarterback, a precarious offensive line and a defense that was porous throughout 2003.
OffenseLife would be relatively easy for Harris if he were only dealing with a new starting quarterback. But his Panthers also feature a new tailback, a new fullback, a new wide receiver, a new tight end and three new offensive linemen. That's eight new faces on offense.
At quarterback, redshirt sophomores Tyler Palko and Luke Getsy are looking to succeed two-time All-Big East pick Rod Rutherford, who threw for 37 touchdowns last season in Harris' West Coast scheme. The Palko-Getsy derby could continue even after the season begins, as Harris might juggle his starting quarterbacks from week to week.
Palko was the prize of Pitt's 2001 recruiting class, while Getsy arrived under the radar. Palko is more athletic of the two and is the consummate leader. Getsy has a livelier arm. The duo has combined for five career completions and 45 yards with no touchdowns. They'll be playing behind a makeshift offensive line and throwing to a receiving corps that lacks a player of Fitzgerald's caliber, though sophomore Greg Lee is a budding star.
A solid running game would help ease the transition for Pittsburgh's new quarterbacks, but juniors Jawan Walker and Raymond Kirkley have yet to prove they can carry the load. The offensive line is the biggest area of concern, as three of the five positions will be manned by unproven starters.
DefensePittsburgh returns seven starters on defense, but that's not necessarily a good thing, considering it was one of the worst units in the country in 2003. The Panthers were routinely dominated up front and yielded 185.0 rushing yards and 402.6 total yards per game. Four opponents amassed more than 500 yards and three tailbacks scorched Pitt for 200-plus.
Three of four starters, including seniors Vince Crochunis and Dan Stephens and junior Thomas Smith, returning in the trenches.
A young linebacking corps could be the lifeblood, led by bone-jarring middle linebacker Clint Session. Pittsburgh must also replace both starters at cornerback. On-again, off-again starter Josh Lay will have to lead the way. Two-year starting safeties Tez Morris and Ty Gilliard should help ease the transition for the inexperienced cornerbacks.
SpecialistsPunter Adam Graessle replaces two-time Big-East Special Teams Player of the Year Andy Lee, and kicker David Abdul attempts to rebound from a season that saw him go 9-of-18 on field goals.
Final AnalysisHarris' 2003 team underachieved, but he'll need this one to overachieve if the Panthers are going to make a trip to their fifth consecutive bowl game.
The Panthers could benefit from a schedule that features home games against Ohio University and Division I-AA Furman, and a watered-down Big East slate that lacks ACC defectors Miami and Virginia Tech. They could contend for the Big East's BCS berth, though hated rival West Virginia will be tough to beat.