PITTSBURGH — Dave Wannstedt knows all too well how six months' worth of buildup and high expectations can unravel during a 60-minute season opener.
Before coaching his first game at Pittsburgh in 2005, Wannstedt kept hearing how he was inheriting the best Panthers team in a decade.
Pitt returned most of the players from its Fiesta Bowl team of the season before, and ticket sales and interest were at peak levels for a team that began the season ranked No. 23.
All that enthusiasm vanished in minutes as Pitt fell behind 35-13 by halftime during a 42-21 opening game loss to unranked Notre Dame that was followed by a road loss to Ohio University. The massive thud of a letdown had long-lasting effects as Pitt didn't have a winning record during any of Wannstedt's first three seasons.
Wannstedt vowed to never allow another team to get overwhelmed by hype and hope. This season may offer proof if a different group of Panthers learned that lesson.
Just like five years ago, the anticipation is enormous. The Panthers return Dion Lewis, a second team All-American who broke most of Tony Dorsett's freshman season rushing records, plus one of the nation's premier defensive ends in Greg Romeus. The depth is the best since Wannstedt arrived, the competition at open positions greater.
"We have high expectations here, and the outside expectations are getting even higher," said Romeus, the last player recruited by Wannstedt in 2006 — the year after the Notre Dame debacle. "We had a 10-win season last year, and we want to win even more games. We definitely have lofty goals, and that's no different than any other year. It's just that everyone else feels that way, too."
Apparently so. Pitt was a near-unanimous pick to win the Big East Conference during a preseason poll of media members, and for good reason. The Panthers return most of the core players from the team that went 10-3 despite ending the regular season with last-minute losses to West Virginia and Cincinnati, and their lineup is loaded not just with multiple-year starters but with stars.
Wannstedt, believing it helps recruiting, is embracing the buildup. Pitt players were made available for extensive magazine and TV interviews during the summer, and five were sent to the Big East's media day. Romeus did so much traveling, he said he was almost glad training camp began.
"What is really exciting to me is obviously all the preseason rankings and predictions," Wannstedt said. "While it's exciting, the greatest part of it is how the players have handled all the attention."
Amid all this optimism, however, are plenty of reasons for Wannstedt to worry that 2010 won't be a repeat of 2005.
There are new starters at quarterback, both cornerback positions, all three positions in the middle of the offensive line, tight end, wide receiver and defensive tackle. Of the 85 scholarship players, only nine are seniors.
Quarterback Tino Sunseri, the son of former Pitt linebacker Sal Sunseri, is confident and well-versed in the offense, but his game experience consists of 17 passes in five games.
"The biggest thing with Tino, as it is with every quarterback, is when you haven't been a starter, it's gaining confidence," Wannstedt said.
Sunseri won't have much time to get it.
The schedule might be the biggest concern of all, with Utah and Notre Dame on the road and Miami at home within the first five games. It might be as difficult a nonconference schedule as any school from a BCS-automatic qualifying conference plays, beginning with the Sept. 2 opener at Utah, which has won 17 in a row at home.
"Nothing's going to be handed to us, but we know that going in," fullback Henry Hynoski said. "We're ready. We could have been predicted to be last, quite honestly, but it still would have been our goal to win the Big East."
To accomplish that, the Panthers need the Jason Pinkston-led offensive line to grow up in a hurry. For Sunseri to display the leadership and control of the offense he routinely shows during practice. And for Lewis and wide receiver Jon Baldwin — he's no longer Jonathan — to produce seasons comparable to last year.
The 6-foot-5 Baldwin made 57 catches for 1,111 yards and eight touchdowns in an offense that scored 417 points in 2009, the second most in school history.
Lewis was expected to share carries with Ray Graham when the 2009 season began, only to rush for at least 110 yards in all but three games while carrying 325 times for 1,799 yards. Only Dorsett had a better year at Pitt, gaining 2,150 during his Heisman Trophy-winning season in 1976.
All this by a running back who, because of his 5-foot-8 size, was recruited by only a handful of schools.
"I never thought he could do that as a freshman," Wannstedt said.
So what can he do as a sophomore?
"If we win a lot of ballgames, I probably will have a pretty good year," Lewis said. "But nothing else matters if we don't win ballgames."
Having Lewis lined up behind him is one reason why Sunseri, a former Pennsylvania state championship-winning high school quarterback, is so confident.
"All great quarterbacks had to start somewhere," he said. "I'm ready to be a leader in the huddle. And I can always hand the ball off to Dion Lewis to take the pressure off me."