'Canes eyes wide open

Miami senior offensive lineman Vernon Carey raised his head and looked straight forward when the topic of conversation turned to the Pitt football team. His mood turned serious. "Man, those guys have come a long, long way," he said. "We used to not even worry about Pittsburgh. Now, they're right there near the top. We better be ready for those guys."

It's rare for Miami football players to heap praise on anyone -- other than themselves -- but the pendulum is swinging in the Big East. Pitt has opened the eyes of the league's toughest program, something that isn't easy.

"We always feel like we're going to win it all -- why wouldn't we?," Carey said. "But you can look at a team like Pittsburgh and say, 'Man, they got a team over there. They can give us a run.' I've seen a big change since I got here. That game used to be an easy one. Those days are over."

Carey is keenly aware that Pitt nearly terminated the 'Canes' BCS hopes last season in Coral Gables. A completed pass here and a non-turnover there, and the Panthers could have been on the other end of a seven-point loss.

The gap appears to be closing.

"They gave us a good one, we know that," said Carey, who pointed out that the 'Canes must come to Heinz Field the last game of the regular season Nov. 29.

"They get us at their place this year, in the cold. That's gonna be our toughest game. We better be ready for that one."

It wasn't so long ago that the Panthers were nothing more than a blip on the radar screen for the 'Canes. Linebacker Jon Vilma has seen that blip expand substantially.

"Credit their coaches for getting players who are competing at our level now," Vilma said. "They were picked to finish second in the conference this year, right behind us. You didn't see that before."

"We don't give credit out easy at Miami, but you gotta give it to them. They've earned our respect."

At Big East media day last week, the Panthers and Hurricanes sat at adjacent tables at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. Pitt was represented by quarterback Rod Rutherford, defensive end Claude Harriott and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The Miami contingent consisted of Vilma, Carey, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and tight end Kellen Winslow.

That group of seven garnered the lion's share of attention at the annual event. Pitt players were asked about Miami; Miami players were asked about Pitt.

"Pretty much everybody sees our game at the end of the year as, the game," Winslow said. "You got the up-and-coming team against the established team. That's what it's all about. They're trying to win a national championship and we're trying to win a national championship. We know about Pittsburgh around Miami. The days of taking them lightly are over. They have a lot of weapons."

Those weapons include 17 returning starters -- the most of any team in the Big East -- from a squad that finished 9-4 last season, won the Insight Bowl and lost by an average of 6.0 points. That's why Miami-Pitt four months from now could shape up into the game of the year in the Big East, if not in the country.

"They're a true national power now," Miami coach Larry Coker said. "They've elevated themselves to the point that we see them as one of the best around. I see a team over there that can compete for a national championship, and I mean that."

Joe Bendel

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