PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Panthers spent nearly two years touting the better life that awaited when the school made the jump from the Big East to the ACC.
The talking points always included league stability, academic excellence and – oh by the way – a lucrative TV contract.
The ACC isn’t wasting any time making Pitt earn its keep.
The Panthers will make their long-anticipated ACC debut on Monday night against No. 11 Florida State in the kind of nationally televised spectacle the program hopes comes with a fair amount of regularity in their new conference home.
Would a couple of warmups against a less bold-faced name than the defending conference champions helped a program coming off an uneven 6-7 season? Maybe, but the way Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz looks at it, why wait to see how you stack up?
“I would rather start off with all big games to tell you the truth,” Holtz said. “You come to Pitt, that’s what you come to do. That’s why you come to play Division I football. You come to play the best of the best.”
And nobody in the ACC has been better through the years than the Seminoles, last seen crushing BCS crasher Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl.
While quarterback E.J. Manuel is now in the NFL, Florida State already has his apparent in Jameis Winston, who beat out sophomore Jacob Coker to become only the third redshirt freshman in program history to start the season opener.
It was a decision Winston made easy on coach Jimbo Fisher after lighting up the Spring Game and keeping the momentum through a superb training camp.
Then again, Winston is used to dealing with high expectations and then surpassing them. An outfielder and relief pitcher on the Seminoles baseball team, Winston’s fastball tops 90 mph and he combines it with a sprinter’s speed.
If it sounds familiar, it should. Winston has drawn comparisons to former Florida State stars Deion Sanders and Charlie Ward, two-sport standouts who are now in the College Football Hall of Fame.
No pressure or anything.
“He likes to be challenged,” Fisher said.
Something Pitt hopes to provide behind a defense that returns seven starters from a unit that ranked 17th nationally last season. Yet Pitt rarely faced a team with Florida State’s athleticism in the old Big East. Stopping the Connecticuts and Rutgers of the world is one thing. Doing it to a team that averaged nearly 40 points a game a year ago is another matter entirely.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Pitt linebacker Shane Gordon said. “I think we’ll be ready. We know we’re going to have to work our kinks out, they’re going to have to do the same thing.”
Even if the kinks for the Panthers might be more noticeable. Well-traveled quarterback Tom Savage will take his first live snap in nearly three years after the former Rutgers starter missed all of 2011 and 2012 while transferring to Arizona before moving on to Pitt.
The 23-year-old will try to make up for lost time, but he’ll do it with little experience around him. Outside of senior wide receiver Devin Street, the skill position players are raw and largely unproven. The backfield is still searching for an identity after Rushel Shell split for West Virginia in July. Freshman wide receiver Tyler Boyd was one of the jewels of coach Paul Chryst’s second recruiting class last spring, but it’s unclear just how he’ll fit in.
The same could be said about the Panther’s spot in the new-look ACC. When Pitt and Syracuse left the decaying Big East in September, 2011 is kickstarted a domino effect that shook the foundation of college football. The ACC provided needed security but also put the Panthers in a tough position.
The program spent most of its two decades in the Big East spinning its wheels, mixing good seasons with bad ones while being elbowed out at the top by the likes of Louisville and the Mountaineers. And while the players are optimistic, the prognosticators are not. Pitt was picked to finish fifth in the ACC Coastal Division.
Still, Chryst believes his rebuilding project is well underway. After spending his first season on the job “finding out who liked football” he believes he’s got the right players in place to make Pitt competitive immediately. While allowing this season opener is “unique” he stressed the proper ingredients for victory never change regardless of the opponent.
“Good football wins games,” Chryst said.
So is the importance of making a good first impression.
“When guys think of college football, they think of games like these,” Chryst said. “All of that is great, and we’re appreciative of the people who made this happen. Joining the ACC in this fashion is pretty impressive.”