I'm here in Pittsburgh and just finished a nice chat with Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt. As I got on the elevator at my hotel — a Roberto Clemente long ball from PNC Park — a few Pirates fans hopped on and were grousing about losing to the Cubs in the home opener.
Guy No. 1: "I'm done with the Pirates. Fifteen straight years of losing home openers."
Me: "You guys know there are 150-something games left, right?"
Guy No. 2: "I can see the end from here."
And I can see the beginning for the Pitt Panthers. It's all starting to fall into place for this team. For now, here are four other teams for whom I can see the beginning of something good:
North Carolina State: Don't kid yourself, Tom O'Brien is one of the top five coaches in the game. (SN colleague Tom Dienhart ranked him fourth in the ACC) It took him a while to weed out the malcontents last year, but by November the Wolfpack were playing as well as anyone in the ACC.
This is how Tom O. works: First, he makes the team smarter, then tougher — and once he finds a quarterback the winning begins. The question: Can junior Harrison Beck become that leader?
Mississippi State: The administration didn't panic when things looked ugly early under coach Sylvester Croom, and now look what they have: a deep, experienced team — with 17 starters returning — primed for big things.
The Bulldogs are strong and deep along the interior lines. And unlike some conferences where a team can hide its flaws on the interior, a team will get exposed quickly in the meat-grinder SEC when it can't line up and trade punches. State still is shaky at the skill positions, so here's its game plan this season: play defense, protect the ball.
Stanford: There's one reason, and one reason only, to be excited about the Cardinal: coach Jim Harbaugh. One NFL general manager told me Harbaugh, with his dynamic personality and charisma, is destined to coach in the NFL. Harbaugh set up USC and Pete Carroll last summer with verbal jabs before orchestrating the upset of the season in Los Angeles. He also ripped his alma mater, Michigan, for its academic issues.
High school players feed off coaches who talk big and back it up. Harbaugh won't get the type of players USC and UCLA get, but he'll get enough for the Cardinal to win eight or nine games. Then, he'll leave for a better BCS job or the NFL.
Michigan State: Many laughed at Sparty coach Mark Dantonio after he responded to Michigan running back Mike Hart's comment that playing Michigan State was like "playing your little brother." To me, it was a thing of beauty.
Look, Michigan State always has had talent; that's not the issue. The problem: This team's heart pumps Kool-Aid. That is, it did until Dantonio arrived. He's a charismatic coach who likes to recruit and whose personality is contagious.
I'll always remember what linebacker Cie Grant told me in 2002 when he played for Dantonio, then the defensive coordinator at Ohio State: "There aren't many people I'm afraid of; he's one of them. But I love him like a father."
Any coach who can walk that fine line of fear and love is going to win a lot of games.
CFT: The Detroit Lions are expected to own and operate their own bowl game at Ford Field, starting play in 2014, according to a report by ESPN.
Video: Football from NBC Sports
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