In chemistry, a catalyst is needed for a reaction.
Pittsburgh seems to have found chemistry in a four-game winning streak. And the Panthers definitely have a catalyst in sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy, who is the main reason for that streak.
McCoy's 27-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter lifted the Panthers to a 21-20 victory over Iowa four weeks ago. He followed up by rushing for more than 140 yards in consecutive victories over Syracuse and South Florida. This week, Pitt plays at Navy.
One could make the argument that the Panthers will go as far as McCoy can take them. But McCoy won't be the one making that argument.
"I don't want to look at it like that," McCoy said. "Everybody is playing together. The offensive line has been playing excellent lately and giving the backs space to run and make guys miss. The coaches are making some great calls. It's all coming together."
That's good because in the first week everything seemed in danger of coming apart. Although the Panthers hadn't managed a winning record in three years, they opened the season ranked 25th and were considered a legitimate contender in the Big East. Much of the optimism about Pitt was because of McCoy, who had a brilliant freshman season in which he rushed for 1,328 yards.
But when Pitt blew a two touchdown lead and lost its opener 27-17 to Bowling Green, it was easy to dismiss the Panthers as an overrated and over-hyped collection of underachievers that would crumble again.
These Panthers are different, though.
"We have so much character on this team," McCoy said. "Look at the way we responded. We play hard, good football. That's what we've been doing lately. We're trusting each other.
"The attitude on the team is so different. When we were down against Bowling Green it was like, 'Now guys, let's respond. Let's get to work and answer back.' "
They came back with a win over Buffalo, then the come-from-behind victory over Iowa. McCoy's touchdown run with just more than 13 minutes remaining staked the Panthers to a 21-17 lead, and the defense made the lead stand.
"We put the game in the defense's hands and they stopped them," McCoy said. "It was just a team win. We're winning close games. Last year we couldn't find a way to win close games."
That is without a doubt the primary difference in this season's Panthers. Pitt was 5-7 last season, and four of those losses were by a touchdown or less. The Panthers already have two victories by less than a touchdown this season.
"Good teams always find ways to win close games," McCoy said. "Last year we couldn't find it. This year it's working for us. Guys are coming out expecting to beat our opponent instead of wondering what will happen. We're executing. We're not making turnovers. We're not making penalties."
Well, Pittsburgh has committed nine turnovers, which coach Dave Wannstedt surely doesn't find acceptable. But the Panthers lead the nation in fewest penalties, averaging just 3.2 per game.
And now McCoy is starting to find his stride, which means the Panthers could keep climbing in the polls and make a serious run at the title in the Big East, which is wide open.
McCoy said they're not looking that far ahead.
"Reality is you have to take every game one at a time," McCoy said. "Bowling Green taught us that. We'll worry about Navy. And then we'll worry about Rutgers."
• Minnesota coach Tim Brewster deserves multiple pats on the back. The Gophers have rebounded from a 1-11 debacle of a year ago and are bowl eligible at 6-1 following last week's upset of Illinois. The Gophers get a break this week – they're off – but probably don't want one. By the way, Brewster seems to be following a path of his mentor, Texas coach Mack Brown. Brown endured consecutive one-win seasons in his first two years as North Carolina's coach, but eventually had several 10-win years.
• Tennessee hasn't scored more than 14 points in four consecutive games, and moving the football against Mississippi State on Saturday won't be easy, either. Under normal circumstances this weekend's game could be a trap – coming between Georgia and Alabama. No doubt, the Volunteers won't be looking ahead. But will it matter?
• Vanderbilt still needs one more victory to become bowl eligible. But after losing to Mississippi State last week, suddenly that one win doesn't seem guaranteed. The Commodores go to Georgia this week, then face Duke. Duke isn't a pushover this season and is the weakest team remaining on Vandy's schedule. Well, Tennessee fans hope Duke is the weakest team remaining on the schedule.
• Auburn projected to be a strong contender in the SEC West. Now, the 4-3 Tigers may struggle just to get bowl eligible. A gimme against Tennessee-Martin comes Nov. 8, but the other four games are road trips to West Virginia, Ole Miss and Alabama and a home game against Georgia.
• Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer already is a strong Heisman contender, but his campaign will pick up considerable steam if he has an impressive showing this week against Ohio State. The Buckeyes rank 23rd in the country in rushing defense and have held five of seven opponents to fewer than 20 points.
• The blowout of the week figures to take place in College Station. Texas A&M gives up points at an alarming rate and Texas Tech scores at an alarming rate. And Tech coach Mike Leach loves to taunt the Aggies. Look for a 50-point outburst. Maybe 60.
• If Texas wins the Big 12, the Longhorns should play for the national championship even if they have a loss. Four of their next five games are against ranked teams – Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas. This after beating Oklahoma.
• How much has Miami fallen? How much has Duke risen? We'll find out Saturday when the Blue Devils play host to the Hurricanes. But there might be some confusion over just which question figures to be answered. Miami has had a hard time beating Duke in each of the past three seasons.
• USC's defense has allowed 10 points or fewer in four of five games. Expect that streak to turn into five of six. The Trojans next face Washington State, which has not scored more than 17 points against a Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) opponent.
• Stanford's postseason hopes are at stake against UCLA. Follow along. The 4-3 Cardinal needs two wins to be bowl eligible. Stanford has a tap-in putt against Washington State on Nov. 1, but also games at Oregon and California and a home game against USC. True, the Cardinal could win any of those three games, but they just as easily could lose them, too. A victory over UCLA would all but guarantee six wins. The bet here is Stanford is 6-3 going into the final three-game stretch.
• Somehow, West Virginia shares the Big East lead. Well, here's how: The Mountaineers have faced the bottom two teams in the league – Syracuse and Rutgers. West Virginia must raise its level of play or risk missing a bowl game – at least one in the United States. Sounds absurd, but check the schedule. Every game left on the schedule is against a team with a winning record: Auburn, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Louisville, Pitt and South Florida.
• Finally, how about the job done by Mario Cristobal at Florida International? The Golden Panthers are 3-3 and on a three-game winning streak. Those three wins exceed the victory total of the past two seasons combined.
Olin Buchanan is a Heisman voter and a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.