Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
When Pittsburgh lost its season opener to Bowling Green, Panthers fans figured they were in for another disheartening campaign under Dave Wannstedt.
Instead, this year has been a smashing success by every reasonable standard. Pitt went 9-3, earning its most victories in a season since 1982, and clinched the Big East's No. 2 postseason spot with a trip to the Brut Sun Bowl.
This was the year that Wannstedt's excellent work on the recruiting trail paid dividends, as young players like Greg Romeus, Jabaal Sheard, Jason Pinkston and Jonathan Baldwin shined in key roles. LeSean McCoy had a sensational sophomore year after a slow start, and the Panthers were able to open up the offense because of their trust in steady if not spectacular quarterback Bill Stull. The secondary was shaky at times, but Pitt had one of the league's best defensive lines, the Big East's top tackler in Scott McKillop and excellent special teams play.
And after three years of close calls under Wannstedt, Pitt finally figured out how to finish strong, winning four games decided by five points or fewer. The 5-1 road record was another sign of toughness by a program that's clearly on the rise.
Offensive MVP: LeSean McCoy, RB. Early in the season, McCoy admitted he was too eager to try and break a big play on every carry. He learned to trust his vision and his blockers, and the big plays followed. He ran for 1,403 yards and led the nation in scoring with 21 touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: Scott McKillop, LB. The key to everything Pittsburgh does defensively, McKillop led the Big East in tackles (126) for a second straight season and was named the league's defensive player of the year. He may not wow you with his physical gifts, but he's always in the right place at the right time, and he almost never misses a tackle.
Turning point: Pitt's season could have easily gone off the rails after a stunning 54-34 home loss to Rutgers on Oct. 25. Stull suffered a concussion in that game and was unavailable for the following week at Notre Dame. The Panthers trailed 17-3 at halftime in South Bend but rallied for a thrilling 36-33 win in four overtimes. They'd go on to win four of their last five, with the only loss at eventual Big East champion Cincinnati.
What's next: The Dec. 31 Sun Bowl shapes up as one of the more exciting matchups of the bowl season, with two high-scoring teams squaring off. A Pitt win could be a springboard to a preseason top 15 national ranking next year. The Panthers bring a big nucleus back, and if McCoy spurns the NFL as he has pledged to do, they will be the heavy favorites to win the Big East in 2009.
That wraps up the reviews for today. On Tuesday, we'll review Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse and West Virginia.