There are three teams who control their own destiny in the conference race: Cincinnati, West Virginia and Pitt. I recently made a case for why the Bearcats and Mountaineers will win the Big East. Up today: Pitt.
Why the Panthers will win the Big East
1. Improving defense. Nobody is forgetting that Pitt blew two fourth-quarter leads earlier in the season, but the defense has certainly improved itself since then. In the first five games of the season, Pitt was giving up an average of 414.4 yards a game. In the past three: 279.3 yards per game. The defensive line is starting to get good pressure on the quarterback. Pitt leads the Big East in sacks 27. Watch out for Aaron Donald, who has five in the past two games.
2. Zach Brown capable. Pitt certainly lucked out when Brown elected to play for Pitt after deciding to transfer from Wisconsin. Now in an emergency situation, the Panthers can rely on a veteran running back who has played in games and knows what it takes to get the job done. He might have fallen down the depth chart with the Badgers, but Pitt gave him a fresh start. This is his final opportunity to start in college, and he seems determined to make the most of his opportunity.
3. Sunseri turns a corner. Tino Sunseri has had his share of downs this season, but last week he threw for a career-high 419 yards in a win against UConn. The Panthers have trimmed down the playbook and are focusing on what he does well. It certainly hurts to Ray Graham, but they were without him for most of the UConn game and still had a nice offensive showing. Was that game a turning point for Sunseri and the offense, or just a fluke?
Why the Panthers won't win the Big East
1. Sunseri. If last week was just a fluke, then Pitt is in serious trouble. Maybe the Panthers should ask to play all their games during the week, because that is when Sunseri has played his best. The problem here is that teams are going to make him beat them with Graham gone. The chances of that happening are ... ?
2. Graham out. The Panthers lost more than their best running back. They lost their best player when Graham tore his ACL against UConn. Graham was the leading rusher and led the team in receptions, and bailed the Panthers out when Sunseri was struggling. Brown will have to do, but it is hard to replace somebody as dynamic as Graham.
3. Turnovers. The defense has shown improvement, but it also has not created nearly enough turnovers this season. Pitt has a Big East worst three interceptions and seven total takeaways the entire season. The Panthers rank last in the Big East in turnover margin at minus-7. If that trend continues, the Panthers will have a hard time winning the conference.