Here's what to look for in college football's Week 11:
1. Full circle: In 2005, two longtime NFL coaches made their college coaching debuts at their alma maters. Dave Wannstedt's Pittsburgh Panthers were a three-point favorite over Charlie Weis' Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Boy, did the experts have that one wrong. The Fighting Irish rolled 42-21 as the Weis bandwagon filled up fast. Wannstedt, meanwhile, has struggled to sustain any real momentum almost ever since. But now the Panthers, despite not having beaten any top-20 teams, have climbed to No. 8 in the Associated Press poll, which is the school's highest November ranking since 1982. A BCS bowl is possible; the Panthers rank 12th in the BCS standings. They are off to their best start (8-1) since that '82 season, when Dan Marino was their quarterback. Maybe Weis, the now-embattled Irish coach, can salvage some of his reputation that has taken so many hits after last week's home loss to Navy. Before the season, this matchup didn't appear to carry such juice for Weis, but now, perhaps it's a different story.
Much of the talk around college football since Saturday has been about whether this latest disappointing upset loss might be it for Weis. We've been here before. His team lost to Navy at home two years ago amid a 3-8 season. Last season, the Irish lost -- also at home -- to Syracuse, one of the worst teams in the country. Now they've lost three in a row to service academies in South Bend. The really shocking part is -- well, that it's not really all that shocking. Couple those losses with the fact that Notre Dame hasn't beaten archrival USC or really anyone else of substance, and we get this significant Saturday in Pittsburgh.Still, Saturday's game is almost as big for Wannstedt. If the Panthers lose the game, it'll be just another clunker from a program that few people seem prepared to buy in on. It has inched its way up the rankings much as a non-automatic qualifying school would, as much through the attrition of everyone else as its own success. It feels as though the Panthers are up there by default: "Well, who else will we have in the top 15, three-loss Virginia Tech? Four-loss Oklahoma?!?"
To their credit, the Panthers have been outstanding on defense this season. They lead the nation in sacks (38), and given Notre Dame's struggles to protect Jimmy Clausen, that'll be a key matchup. Pitt leads the Big East in total defense, and the school's sports information staff points out that "Since its Oct. 2 win at Louisville, no opponent has managed more than 305 yards against the Panthers. Pitt has held its last three opponents to less than 300 yards, including Rutgers (286), USF (212) and Syracuse (285)." That's nice. I'd like to point out that two of those teams are relying on freshman quarterbacks and the third is starting a guy who had spent the previous four years as a point guard. Clausen is a three-year starter, and his receivers are the best Pitt will have seen this season.
Clausen has improved a lot from 2008. Then again, no quarterback may have improved more than Pitt's Bill Stull. His stats are very similar to Clausen's. Both are completing 68 percent of their passes. Clausen has a 20-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Stull's is 17-to--4. Clausen's TD percentage is 6.49. Stull's is 7.76. Asked whether people are still leery of buying in on his signal-caller's eye-popping makeover, new Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said, "He's answering the leery questions each week of 'Can he do it consistently? Sure, he did it Week 1. Damn, he did in Week 2 and Week 3 and Week 4, and he keeps answering it. He's just been so consistent in managing the team, decision-making, accuracy."
The Irish defense has had huge problems all season. In fact, I was surprised to see a stat that illustrates just how shaky the Irish's pass D has been: For as superb as its offense has been this season, Notre Dame has allowed more pass plays of 20 yards or longer (38) than it has generated (36).
An even bigger headache for the Irish will be containing freshman RB Dion Lewis, the country's seventh-ranked rusher. If ND can't contain him and Stull, it's hard to imagine any scenario that would keep Weis in South Bend beyond 2009 as the Brian Kelly-to-Notre Dame rumors only grow louder.
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