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NCAA Football Preview - Pittsburgh Panthers

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Pittsburgh's first season in the ACC was a bit of a mixed bag. The team finished just 3-5 in conference play, but was 7-6 overall in Paul Chryst's second season with the team.

The Panthers got their first taste of the ACC in the season opener and were no match for the Florida State Seminoles (41-13), who ran the table in capturing the ACC and national titles. To Pitt's credit however, the team responded with three straight wins after that and headed into the month of October with a 2-1 league ledger.

The team failed to capitalize on a 3-1 start to the year though, as momentum swings plagued the Panthers the rest of the way. The team could not string back-to-back wins together in October or November. although big wins over Notre Dame (28-21) and Syracuse (17-16) in November provided bowl eligibility.

Pittsburgh was humbled in a lopsided loss to Miami-Florida in the regular- season finale, but ended the year on a positive note, with a 30-27 win over Bowling Green in the Little Casesars Pizza Bowl.

The program also enjoyed a truly remarkable campaign by All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and became just the second player in NCAA history to win the Outland Trophy, the Nagurski Award, the Lombardi Award and the Bednarik Award all in the same season.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The Panthers lose quarterback Tom Savage. but returns eight other starters on the offensive side of the ball, including some truly gifted youngsters. Sophomore QB Chad Voytik (6-1, 210) was forced into action in the bowl game after Savage was injured and led the team to victory. He gets the nod under center this time around.

Christ is excited about what Voytik could become.

"I like how Chad has been approaching it a lot. Every day you're getting some stuff that you've got to clean up, but I've loved his approach to it. If he keeps doing that, then he'll maximize his opportunity."

Fellow sophomore James Conner comes off a strong freshman campaign that saw the 6-2, 230-pounder rumble for a team-best 799 yards and eight touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry. Senior Isaac Bennett (5-11, 205) also returns after rushing for 797 yards and seven TDs. Throw in highly touted incoming freshman Chris James (5-11, 210) and the ground attack could be a huge asset in 2014.

Standout wide receiver Devin Street has moved on to the NFL, but his heir apparent burst on the scene in 2013 in the form of Tyler Boyd. The 6-2 youngster led the team with 85 receptions, for 1,174 yards and seven TDs, en route to Freshman All-America honors.

Chryst knows he has something special in Boyd.

"Tyler is one of many young guys that need to be able to step up into a leadership role, as well as -- the best way he can lead is continue to be productive. I love the way that he approaches the game and the type of teammate that he is."

Four of last year's five starters return along the offensive line and should provide Christ and Voytik with a descernable comfort level up front.

DEFENSE: There is simply no way to replace a player the caliber of Donald, who led the nation in TFL last year with 28.5, including 11 sacks. Only five starters return on defense so there is certainly some work to do on that side of the football in 2014.

Three starters must be replaced up front, including Donald. Likely candidates to do so include junior Darryl Render (6-2, 285) and senior Khaynin Mosely- Smith (6-0, 305) inside and sophomore Shakir Sota (6-3, 255) on the outside.

Seniors Anthony Gonzalez (79 tackles) and Todd Thomas (72 72 tackles) bring experience to the linebacking corps, while senior safety Ray Vinopal (83 tackles, three interceptions) does the same for the secondary.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Place kicker Chris Blewitt had a solid freshman season in 2013, converting 14-of-18 field-goal attempts with a long of 47 yards. Punter Matt Yoklic has moved on after a strong campaign in which he averaged 43 yards per punt. His likely successor is redshirt freshman Ryan Winslow (6-5, 2-5).

OUTLOOK: The Panthers finally have the all important stability a program looks for in the coaching department, as Chryst's third year at the helm should have the team take another step in the right direction.

Pittsburgh's non-conference schedule is manageable, with games against Delaware, Iowa and Akron all coming at Heinz Field, with the lone road trip coming at FIU in mide-September. The Panthers should win at least three of those games and perhaps all four as the Hawkeyes will present a real challenge on Sept. 20.

The team does benefit from playing in the Coastal Division and doesn't have to see Florida State or Clemson at all this year. Home dates in conference play see Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Duke and Syracuse come to town, while road games include trips to Boston College, Virginia, North Carolina and Miami.

The Panthers have a chance to climb the Coastal Division ladder with a favorable schedule and if everything goes right, could find themselves nearing double-digit wins.