No. 14 Pittsburgh (9-2) and No. 5 Cincinnati (11-0) meet for the Big East title and BCS Bowl that accompanies it Saturday at noon at Heinz Field. The game will be broadcast nationally by ABC-TV.
"Think of the emotion our kids dealt with the past two weeks and going into this week, too,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We have 18-to-19-year-old kids (who) played Notre Dame on national TV in front of a sellout crowd. Then, we play our biggest rival (on) national TV again in front of a hostile crowd.
"This week, we're playing for the Big East championship on national TV at home. So, that's a lot of emotion crammed into three straight weeks right there. I'm glad the game's at home. I think that will give us a little boost. Winning a championship is the goal for any team.
"(But) there aren't that many teams in the country with an opportunity to play for their conference championship to go to a BCS Bowl game,'' Wannstedt added. "But we have that opportunity, and that was our goal in August. So, we're sitting right where we need to be.''
The Panthers already have begun preparing for Cincinnati. They met as a team only, no coaching staff, Saturday to clean up some things after the loss last Friday at West Virginia. There were team meetings and film evaluation before a brief practice Sunday. Full-blown practice sessions begin Tuesday.
And Wannstedt noted that the Pitt players were more than ready to move on to game-planning for the Bearcats. Fifth-year senior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas verified that belief.
"It was a real tough loss, the Backyard Brawl, and you never want to lose that game,'' Mustakas said. "But we did a great job to put that behind us. We came in Saturday and watched tape, and we were done with that game. We don't want to talk about it any more. Now, we're getting ready for Cincinnati. It's going to be another tough game, but we'll be ready.
"I wouldn't say that it's as big as the Backyard Brawl, but it's getting up there. And I do miss that trophy. We've already talked about getting it back. The River City Rivalry, we had that trophy the whole time I've been here, but they got it last year. Now, we want it back. I have a picture in my locker of them holding the trophy last year, so we're motivated to get it back.''
This would be quite an accomplishment for the Panthers, who finished one game behind Cincinnati in the Big East title race last season. A loss to the Bearcats on the road sealed that fate for Pitt. But after a solid 9-4 campaign and a bowl game last season, the Panthers are primed for more.
This senior group, the largest in the Wannstedt Era, is ready for more. That's especially true for the fifth-year players like Mustakas. And the only sixth-year player, middle linebacker Adam Gunn -- the only current player and coach, other than administrators Chris LaSala and Bob Junko, to be part of the Big East championship and play in a BCS bowl in 2004 -- is champing at the bit.
"The 2004 season, that was a good year for us, the Fiesta Bowl season,'' Gunn said. "We came in on a high note, but it hasn't been where we wanted it again until the past couple years. Last year was a big step in the right direction, and this year we've taken it to another level. At least we still can do that.
"Nine wins last year and nine this year so far, but we're going for 10 this week and 11 with the bowl game. So, that's great for this program. Once you get to that 10-win category, that puts you up to another level, ranked in the top 10. So, that's great for this program, and Coach Wannstedt has done a great job.
"He transformed this program back to where it was when he was here,'' Gunn added. "He talks about Pitt's tradition, and we're happy to help him get back to that level. It's been a lot of hard work, but we're not done yet. We want to win the Big East more than anything and get to a BCS bowl and win that, too.''
Wannstedt addressed that outlook with the Panthers.
"With our program, our expectations and our players expectations have changed,'' Wannstedt said. "Just look (at) a year ago, everybody was doing back flips because we won nine games, and rightfully so. It was the first time in over a quarter century. Now we're at nine games and we're pressing for more. We feel that we can get more. We want more. The kids want more.
"The fans want more. That is all part of winning. ... Most of these kids are guys who came in as freshman during that first full recruiting season when I first came back to the University. So, it's been neat to see them grow as young men and become better football players to build this program up over the past 4-5 years. It's really exciting for them.
"(And) when you think about what's happening here come Saturday at noon, an opportunity to play their last game in front of a home crowd, a sellout crowd on national TV and ultimately to play for the Big East championship,'' Wannstedt added, "I think it's a great script for our football team and a great script for our seniors. We just have to take care of our business (on the field).''
And if Pitt is successful, the program will have reached the next level that everyone associated with the Panthers have sought for years. Just ask seniors like Mustakas.
"I want this game more than anything,'' Mustakas said. "It's my senior year and my final home game, and I want to go to a BCS bowl. I came here, and we were coming off going to a BCS game. So, winning the Big East, that's what I wanted to do every year since I got here. Now, it's right in front of us, so I want to do that more than anything. (But) we've come a long way.
"Just the mindset of the players, there's a big difference. At the beginning of my career, it didn't happen a lot, but I felt losses really didn't upset the guys as much as they should. That's the way I felt, but those days are long past us. The 6-6 days, the 5-7 days, they're over. We're a Big East contender this year, and we'll always be one from here on out. That's the way it is at Pitt now.''
Gunn put things in perspective, as far as the upperclassmen were concerned.
"We were just talking about this being a perfect ending to our careers, the seniors, the biggest game we've played in,'' Gunn said. "It's senior night, a sellout crowd on national TV, it doesn't get any better than this. Coach Wannstedt hit on it earlier. Last year, we were happy with nine wins.
"And we were excited to play in the Sun Bowl. This year, we have nine wins, but we're not happy at all. You can tell that just by walking around this facility. No one is content with nine wins. We're striving for more. We know that we're capable of getting more.
"That's where the program is, and that's where it will continue to be for years to come after I leave here,'' Gunn added. "I think it's going to stay at that level for a long time. The trophy, the ring, we're very excited about that, and we can't wait to get it into our hands.''
The trophy Gunn talked about is the River City Rivalry trophy, a gaudy item that easily takes 2-3 players to carry, but it's still something the Panthers want to return to Pitt.
"I can't say that it was a rivalry before last year's game, even though they said it was the River City Rivalry and had a trophy and everything,'' Gunn said. "The magnitude of the game last year and this year, even the year before that when we upset them here a couple years ago. The scores were always close.
"And here we are again. I believe it'll be another tough game. West Virginia is our biggest rival, obviously, since we don't play Penn State anymore. But Cincinnati, they have to be right up there now, too. The games are always close, and the past couple years they've been real important, too.''
And none were more important than this week's matchup.
More Than Gaudy Trophy At Stake
Panther More Top Stories
Go premium and get SI free for a yearGo premium with PantherMore.com today and get Sports Illustrated for free.
Panther More8:53 AM
ONE YEAR LATER: Canada vs. ChaneyFormer Pitt offensive coordinator Jim Chaney bolted back to the SEC when he accepted the open offensive coordinator job at Georgia this past offseason, leaving Pitt coach Pat…
Panther MoreYesterday at 1:36 PM
Pat Narduzzi listed as "hot commodity" coachScout.com gives you its mid-season list of coaches who could take head coaching positions elsewhere after 2016. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is listed among college football's hottest…
ScoutYesterday at 10:00 AM
Four-star Thompson set to visit PittFour-star Pitt commit Aaron Thompson slated to check out Pitt's campus.
Panther MoreYesterday at 8:40 AM