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Pitt must win the Big East this season to avoid failure

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Here’s a debate to throw out at the SHAT (or any other) tailgate party Saturday before the Pitt/Buffalo game at Heinz Field:

Let’s say Pitt doesn’t win the Big East championship this season. It’s not such an outrageous thought, given the challenging set of circumstances facing the Panthers:
New coach.

New system.

Tough schedule that could send Pitt to spinning into a demoralizing 4-3 overall record heading into the final month.

The question is this: Would finishing second or worse in the Big East mean Pitt coach Todd Graham failed in his first season?

Joe Starkey, my columnist colleague at the Trib, answers with an emphatic, `Yes!’ And he said as much in a well-argued piece earlier this month.

I agree with Joe, and I don’t think we would get much of an argument from the man who knows more about Pitt football than anyone. That would be Graham himself.

“Our expectation is to win the Big East,” he said. “Anything less, and we’ll be disappointed.”

You can say that Pitt can be disappointed without considering itself a failure, especially if it turns that 4-3 into 9-4 (one better than 11 of the past 14 seasons under Dave Wannstedt and Walt Harris, but maybe not good enough for a championship).

But several factors support our argument that finishing anywhere but first place in the Big East constitutes overall failure.

First of all: The Big East is loaded with beatable teams. Only West Virginia, Pitt and South Florida got votes in the AP and USA Today preseason rankings, and the Panthers and Bulls were afterthoughts.

Next point: Pitt returns eight starters on defense, its quarterback, a supremely talented running back and three seniors on the offensive line. That’s enough to win this conference.

Furthermore: If Wannstedt led this team to an eight-victory season and second place in the Big East, the word failure would be on the lips of everyone of those SHAT tailgaters as often as their grilled beer brats.

Most important: Graham embraces high standards and big-time expectations like they are part of his family. In his mind, rejecting the idea of failure only helps in meeting the goals.

“When you are expected to win, you have a pretty good chance to do some great things,” he said. “If no one expects you to win, no pressure. I like that (pressure). I thrive on it. We’ll see, but I have a lot of confidence in our guys.”

I wouldn’t say championship or bust (no one is losing a job this season), but I’d say there will be some glum faces if Pitt finds itself short of a BCS bowl game.

– Here’s a little trivia about Graham in season openers:
He has had mixed results as a head coach, winning three of five, but his teams never scored fewer than 30 points in any game.

In his only season at Rice, he lost the opener against Houston, 31-30.

At Tulsa in first games, Graham’s teams scored 35, 45, 37 and 49 points and lost only to East Carolina, 51-49 on a desperate pass on the last play of the game.

Called the “Greatest Hail Mary Ever,” by Youtube.com in a bit of hyperbole, the decisive East Carolina touchdown was a 33-yard reception that 6-foot-8, 252-pound redshirt freshman tight end Justin Jones caught in a crowd in the end zone.

I don’t think it’s the greatest Hail Mary ever (not even close), but judge for yourself:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYnA4Jb0q-8

By the way, the game cost Tulsa and Graham an undisputed Conference USA championship and all the glitter and baubles that go with it.

– The Buffalo game will be Pitt’s 31st against a Mid-American Conference opponent, and the Panthers have won 27 of the first 30. But don’t forget the 2008 opener (27-17, Bowling Green, at Heinz Field).

Pitt was 11-3 in openers under Harris and Wannstedt.

– Graham’s first Tulsa team opened against Louisiana-Monroe in 2007 — his first season on the job — and he said one of the first snaps of the game went over his quarterback’s head. A defender returned the fumble for a touchdown.

Recalled Graham: “(A) guy stood up in the stands and said, ‘High octane (expletive) …’ You can finish that deal.”

– Graham is coaching his third team after one season at Rice and four at Tulsa, and he made an interesting comparison among the three.

“This is the best football team I have ever inherited,” he said. “There are good players here. They (the previous coaching staff) did a good job of bringing good people in here.”

Among them, he said, are senior cornerback Antwaun Reed, senior defensive end Justin Hargrove, junior quarterback Tino Sunseri and junior wide receiver Mike Shanahan.

“Reed was a good player last year, but he has really put himself in position (to be even better),” Graham said. “Hargrove really exceeded where I thought he would be.”
He also spoke highly of Sunseri’s leadership and arm strength.

“The biggest thing that was encouraging is how his peers feel about him,” he said. “He really has the respect of the team. He is the first guy sprinting on the field, the first guy sprinting off the field.

“Backing Tino up in the shotgun is something that has accentuated his talents. The guy can really throw the ball. I thought he could throw the ball, but he can really throw the ball.”

The most targeted player for those throws may be Shanahan, whose height intrigues Graham.

“I never had one of those,” he said of the 6-foot-5 wide receiver.

– But even Graham knows to temper his praise until the team wins a few games. Almost daily, he talks about how players must be disciplined and avoid turnovers and penalties (which may lead a cynic to believe those things will happen occasionally, at least in the first month of the season).

“We haven’t done anything,” he said. “We haven’t played a game, haven’t made a first down. All we have done at this point is practice. We will see what we do when the bullets start flying.”

– Graham said he won’t be nervous before the game.

“There is nothing to be nervous about,” he said. “You are going to go out there and get hit in the mouth. It doesn’t do you any good to worry. That is not how I want our players to play. I want us to be disciplined. I want us to be prepared and be thoughtful. I don’t want to be loosey-goosey.”

– Pitt will practice today, its second day in a row of live hitting, he said. In fact, Graham’s practice schedule calls for 15 minutes Tuesday and 10 minutes Wednesday in which the team lines up with two tight ends and two running backs and slugs it out.

“People are worried about getting banged up, but you have to be physical. Two days a week, we are strapping it up pretty good.”

– Don’t forget my interview with former Pitt quarterback and current radio analyst Pat Bostick today between 2 and 3 p.m. on TribLive Radio. Bostick can talk football with the best of them, but we want to save his vocal cords for the game. So, we may also have an interview with a player.

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