There is no doubt that the first seven games of Todd Graham's reign as Pitt's head coach has been mostly disastrous. But how bad it is really? A lot of the fan base, and some of the local media, are already saying that Graham is doomed after just seven games. I keep hearing that Graham and Steve Pederson should be fired, that Graham is over his head, and that the Panthers will lose recruits because of this season. I've also heard that Dave Wannstedt left the cupboard bare and the players he did leave behind are a bad match for Graham's offense, with Graham getting major criticism for not adapting to the players that he was given. Let's look at the issues one by one to see, realistically, which are true and which are mere knee jerk, emotional reactions. We'll start with some of the no brainer issues, then work towards the more complex ones.
Steve Pederson should be fired. It's not going to happen so any fans pining for his dismissal will just have to come to terms with that. The university pays him a big contract which shows just how much they think of him. I haven't agreed with everything he's done, but for the most part he has been considered a big success.
Recruits will run from this mess. I don't see this one happening either. Prospects look at the bigger picture and do not look at things emotionally like the average fan does. For offensive players, all Graham has to say is that his offenses broke NCAA records in the past and once he gets the right players, he will have more great offenses. The reasoning will work because it's common sense, and the players will see that.
Dave Wannstedt left the cupboard bare. The talent level Wannstedt left behind was not great, though I have no doubt that he would have a better record with them this season, if for no other reason than they fit what he wants to do more than what Graham is trying to do.
But assuming that Wannstedt was still the coach this season, his offense was not going to be good enough to win a lot of games. Jon Baldwin was a malcontent, but his absence shows just how mediocre the rest of the WRs are. The OL, after years of poor recruiting at the position, was going to be just as bad for Wannstedt, especially with Chris Jacobson and Lucas Nix injured. And Tino Sunseri is never going to be a QB that is good enough to take a team on his back. Under Wannstedt, Pitt's offense looked like it was not going to be as good as last season, and this was a unit that finished 72nd in total yards, which included 73rd in passing yards (with a 1st round draft pick at WR), and 45th in rushing yards (with Dion Lewis and Ray Graham).
On defense, Pitt was No.8 in total defense last year, and probably would have stayed at a high level, even without Jabaal Sheard and Dom DeCicco. But even though Wannstedt had some good defenses in his tenure, they were a far cry from where Pitt would have to be to reach an elite level. Just how are you going to win a big game when you are starting linebackers like Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts? They would, and have, got steamrolled against teams with elite talent.
They never should have fired Wannstedt. Firing Wannstedt was the right choice, and to me there was never a doubt. Any school that is in a BCS conference, has a great tradition, a nice recruiting area, and spends a lot of money on the program should be aspiring to be an elite program. If not, then what's the point? Quite frankly, it annoys the hell out of me when I hear any local media member or Panthers fan say Pitt will never reach a higher level because they haven't been at a higher level in decades. What a defeatist, ignorant stance. Tell that to programs like Oklahoma State, Clemson, and Stanford, who are all having great seasons this year and have no more going for their programs than Pitt has.
Wannstedt was maxed out and was never going to reach the elite status. He simply couldn't land the great quarterback, offensive linemen, or linebackers that you need to be an elite program and his continued failures in crucial games began to eat away the last shreds of optimism.
Sadly, the way he left, indignant and defiant, and surrounded by some of his players, showed his total lack of leadership qualities. If Wannstedt, and those players surrounding him, showed more effort in big games, they wouldn't have to be part of that scene that blackened the program's eye even more. If he truly loved the university he would have kept that behind closed doors. The fact that he let his players literally stand by him publicly as he took shots at the university is all you need to know about the lack of character he had. Not surprising for a man who quit in midseason as the coach of the Miami Dolphins.
Graham is in over his head. This particular comment has been played to death already, and it simply isn't true. I hate to break it to Pitt fans but Pitt and the Big East is not that much different than Tulsa and Conference USA. It's common sense that if Graham can lead record setting offenses at Tulsa, then he can lead great offenses at Pitt. Even if you throw the Conference USA opponents out, you will see that Graham's offenses have succeeded.
In 2010, Tulsa had 428 yards against Oklahoma State and 399 yards in a win at Notre Dame. In 2008, Tulsa nearly won at Arkansas, and put up 528 yards of total offense. In 2007, Graham's offense put up 398 against Oklahoma. All of this is proof that Graham's offense could still work against some of the better programs in the country, and this was with highly inferior talent.
Graham's offenses were due to his great coordinators. There's no doubt that Graham has had two of the better offensive coordinators in recent years in Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris. Both were former high school coaches and Morris actually learned the offense from Malzahn. The obvious thing that immediately comes to mind is that without the two masters of this offense, Graham's offense is not nearly as good. In fact, the one bad year Graham had at Tulsa was when he had neither.
In 2009, without Malzahn or Morris, Tulsa was 5-7. But even then, in their one "bad" offensive season, Tulsa was 35th in total yards. By comparison, Pitt was 52nd in total yards, with their 10-3 record due mostly to the No. 19 scoring defense in the country.
Graham is still running the same Malzahn offense for the most part, though it's been simplified this season for obvious reasons. Mike Norvell, who was the Receiving Coordinator at Tulsa last season coached the Tulsa receivers for four seasons. In that time, Norvell had five receivers with 1,000 yard seasons. He also knows the system inside and out by now. Creating the offense, like Malzahn did, is something worthy of high praise. And somebody that creative and ingenious will always be the best at running it. But it's not like it's brain surgery. Graham and Norvell has coached this offense for years now and know how to run it. It's not like they were in the bathroom while Malzahn and Morris were coaching it. In fact, it's been reported that when he was at Tulsa, his entire offensive staff had to know every bit of the offense.
Then you have to throw Calvin Magee into the mix. This is an offensive coordinator who's led offenses that's ranked 5th, 8th, and 15th in prior seasons. Magee, like Graham and Norvell, does not just forget how to coach offense. Sorry, but that's not common sense. All three of these coaches have been parts of big time offenses, and there's absolutely no reason why they can't do the same at Pitt.
The players don't fit the system. Here is your biggest reason for the mess. It's been the reason most rational observers have said often, but now I'm going to prove it. By doing that we will have to once again go back to West Virginia and Michigan, more specifically, former Pitt nemesis Rich Rodriguez.
In Rodriguez's last season at West Virginia, the Mountaineers finished No.15 in total offense and nearly made the national championship game. In the same season, Michigan was No. 68 in total offense.
Rodriguez then took his explosive and fast spread offense to the Big House. The Michigan team that met Rodriguez was very much like the team that Graham is facing now- not in talent level, but in style. Historically, Michigan is one of the few programs in the country that can just line up in a pro-set offense and beat you with size and strength. It's the same style of player than Wannstedt acquired- physically tough, big, and strong. But both were also the total antithesis of the fast, spread offense that both Graham and Rodriguez run, though their styles are different versions of the spread.
In Rodriguez's first season at Michigan, the Wolverines finished 119th. Let me repeat that. Rich Rodriguez, one of the brightest offensive minds in the country, took over a pro-set team, turned it into a spread offense, and the Wolverines finished 119th in the country in total offense.
The quarterback for Michigan that season was Steven Threet, who finished with 1,105 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. His quarterback rating was 105.3. This season, Tino Sunseri has a quarterback rating of 114.0 and has already thrown for 1,204 yards.
In Rodriguez's second season, Michigan's offense improved to No. 59. The new quarterback was Tate Forcier, who threw for 2,050 yards and had a quarterback rating of 128.1.
In the third and final season for Rodriguez, the Wolverines jumped all the way to No. 8 in total offense, thanks to talented sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson, who amazingly threw for over 2,500 yards and ran for over 1,700 yards.
Rodriguez was fired after that season, but it clearly wasn't because of his offense. It had more to do with Rodriguez himself, who was never accepted by the Michigan faithful. His awful defenses and bad record made it easier to get rid of him.
It's obvious what I'm trying to get at here. Graham's offense is currently No. 90 in the country. That's clearly awful, but when you look at recent history, you can see how hard it is to switch between two completely different offensive styles. It's like trying to run a car race with a tank. What makes matters even worse for Graham is that the offensive players he was left aren't very good. Even with a first round receiver and a running back combo of Lewis and Graham, Pitt was No. 72 last season. In 2009, they were No. 52, and and in 2008 (with LeSean McCoy finishing 10th in the nation in rushing) they were No. 77. In 2007, Pitt (with McCoy's excellent freshman year) was No. 108. You get the point. Even with a few star players in Wannstedt's regimes, the offenses were not good at all. So how is Graham going to take these same players, who weren't even good at the system they brought in for, to be adept at a much faster, more complex offense?
Of course, the argument is made that Graham should not run his offensive style when he doesn't have the players. But doesn't that just delay the inevitable? The change has to be made and if it takes a year or two of transition, then that's what has to be done. That doesn't excuse Ray Graham getting 12 carries against Rutgers, which clearly was a mistake, but it does mean that Todd Graham has no choice but to keep going with his offense.
That sounds depressing for fans, but just remember Michigan's offense from seasons one to three. Tino Sunseri is Pitt's Steve Threet. Chad Voytik could very well be Pitt's Denard Robinson. I'm not saying he will break records like Robinson, or be an All-American either, but he should be much better than Sunseri in this offense.
Every time that I see Sunseri hold on to the ball and lumber for six yards, I imagine the 15 yard gain that Voytik will get in that same spot. When I see Ronald Jones taking the ball and running for 8 or 10 yards, I imagine a slew of even faster and better wide receivers running all over the field.
Summary: This offense needs speed and athleticism, it needs a quarterback who makes the right decisions and who can run and pass equally, and it needs receivers who can take a handoff or a pass and go the distance. The offense is defective because it has none of the parts it needs.
Graham has not angered people, beyond the results, and has thus far handled himself well. And his defense, which many people feared would be poor, is currently 55th in total defense. That's not great, but the defense is slow and has some major holes at linebacker. Like on offense, the players do not match what Graham wants to do. He wants fast players flying around the field, blitzing all the time and taking chances. Wannstedt preached the opposite, and recruited players to match that.
None of this is to suggest that Graham will definitely succeed at Pitt. I'm not a prophet and I can't predict the future. But I do know enough about the past to know that it shows that the present is not going to be the future.
Very important late note: I forgot to mention that the great Malzahn has led Auburn to the No. 86 total offense this season, including the No. 106 passing offense. Things are much different without that great quarterback, even for a supposed genius like Malzahn.