Contender or pretender: Pitt

We have come to the end in our series categorizing the unranked teams in the ACC as either contenders or pretenders heading into the 2013 season. We’re leaving out Florida State and Clemson because they are the only two teams from the ACC expected to be ranked this preseason. Those rankings automatically qualify them as contenders. The incoming Pitt Panthers wrap things up.

Why they're contenders: Start with the defense, which returns nine starters from a group that ranked No. 17 in the nation in total defense. Included in that group is defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who should be one of the best interior linemen in the ACC in 2013. Linebacker Todd Thomas is finally near 100 percent, and is poised for a breakout season. Safety Jason Hendricks, who led the team in tackles a season ago, should also make his name known in a hurry in this new league. Though the Panthers do have a new defensive coordinator in Matt House, he served as an assistant on this team a year ago, so there at least will be familiarity with him in charge and no scheme change. There is plenty of talent on offense as well, with Devin Street returning at receiver -- eyeing a 1,000-yard season -- and Rushel Shell hoping to build upon a steady freshman campaign. And while the starting quarterback is unknown right now, many expect either Tom Savage or Chad Voytik to be an improvement over the departed Tino Sunseri.

Why they're pretenders: Let's stay with the offense for a second. The offensive line has not been very good the last several years, and once again, this is an area of concern going into the spring. The top two linemen from a year ago -- guard Chris Jacobson and center Ryan Turnley -- are gone. Depth is not very good, either. At receiver, there are major question marks outside of Street, who will see his fair share of double teams as the player in the spotlight in that group. Shell, meanwhile, was inconsistent last season. How will he handle 20-plus carries in a game as the starter? While there is the expectation that quarterback play will improve, Sunseri did start for three years and led this team to three bowl games. So that position remains an unknown. Defensively, Pitt needs players to step up on the line next to Donald. Putting more pressure on the passer is a must, as the Panthers only had 24 sacks last year, compared to 43 in 2011. Getting Thomas back should be huge for a linebacker group that also has been inconsistent.

Final verdict: I truly believe Pitt will be a contender in Year 1 in the ACC. The defense should be solid; the offense should be better. And these players get the luxury of having the same head coach for two straight seasons. Believe you me, that is huge for a program that has been rocked by transition up at the top.

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