Big East Title Still Within Reach

Surely, you've heard all the jokes about the Big East Conference, known mostly as the Big Least since Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College scampered away several years ago.

With the way several Big East teams played during the opening two weeks of this football season -- losses by Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers, Cincinnati and Louisville and close wins by Connecticut and South Florida -- the criticism is justified. And don't even talk about Syracuse. The Orange might not win a game this season.

But what does this all mean for the Panthers. Well, from one point of view, it means that Pitt is just as much a contender for the Big East crown than any other team. USF is undefeated, so it's the favorite, according to Panthers fourth-year coach Dave Wannstedt, who addressed the media Monday during the Big East teleconference.

"I would say after the first two weeks that South Florida is the team to beat,'' Wannstedt said. "I guess they went to overtime, but I didn't see the game.

"I didn't see any of the games, really, but I still think that they're the team to beat. But don't underestimate West Virginia because of Pat White. After two weeks, though, there's still not any clarity. Not in my mind.''

One thing is resoundingly clear to Wannstedt, however. Every team in the Big East, discounting Syracuse, of course, still has a chance despite what transpired during the first two weeks this season.

"I'm sure, if you could go around and record every head coach's talk to their team,'' Wannstedt said. "It's probably the same thing, that everything's up for grabs. There may not be a dominant team, and we've just got to take them one at a time.''

Wannstedt noted several times after the opening loss that the team's focus was sharp going into the Buffalo game and their resolve much better throughout the contest against the Bulls.

"It was better, without a doubt, because we got beat (in the opener),'' Wannstedt said. "We came to the realization that we'll get beat again if we don't go out and play for 60 minutes. We haven't proven yet that we're a good football team, but we're just trying to win a game.

"The interesting thing was that if we would have come out flat in the opener, then you could say that (Pitt was) reading the press clippings. But that was not the case. We came out and were hitting on all cylinders. Then, we hit some adversity and didn't respond in the right way.

"We didn't sustain for 60 minutes,'' Wannstedt added. "The second game, we did, and that was the theme in practice. We did some gimmick things for them and did some things during the week to try to illustrate and emphasize that it's a 60-minute game regardless of who we're playing and what the score is.''

While it occasionally gets old that Wannstedt has continued to use inexperience as a reason for Pitt's inadequacies this season, the coach turned that around and made a positive comment about the team's situation.

"I told my coaches that the exciting thing about this team right now is that we're probably about 60 or 70 percent, I really believe in my heart, of where we can be as a football team,'' Wannstedt said. "And that's exciting. If we were sitting here and played as well as we did and never turned the ball over in two games, and we were sitting here at 1-1. You'd say to yourself, 'Is this it?'

"But our defense has such a long way to be able to grow, and (tailbacks) LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling have huge days in front of them, I really believe, and (quarterback) Bill Stull is going to continue to get better every week.''

And as long as that improvement happens in time for Pitt's Big East schedule, the Panthers still should have a chance to compete for the Conference crown.

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