This is not exactly how the endgame of the Big East was expected to play out.
The conference title could be decided in the smallest stadium in the league, between a team that last won an outright conference title 44 years ago and another that lost to Bowling Green to start the season.
The Big East manufactured this "River City Rivalry" trophy game when Cincinnati joined the Big East. After eight meetings all time − all won by Pitt − there will be some serious stakes on the line this time.
Cincinnati can all but clinch the Big East title by defeating the Panthers on Saturday night. The Bearcats' conference finale is at home against lowly Syracuse.
Pitt would have at least a share of the conference lead with a victory, but the Panthers still must face West Virginia and Connecticut.
"This has been uncharted territory since the middle of the season," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said. "We're not going to change anything. We're going to stay in the moment."
A popular pick to contend for the conference title, Pittsburgh opened the season ranked 25th in the preseason Associated Press poll. The Panthers promptly lost 27-17 at home to Bowling Green. After winning five in a row, the Panthers re-entered the polls – but dropped out again when they lost 54-34 to Rutgers.
That wasn't the ideal path for Pitt to reach its first bowl game since 2004, but the Panthers have improved along the way. LeSean McCoy rushed for a career-low 39 yards in Pitt's last game against Louisville, but the Panthers still won 41-7 by forcing five turnovers and passing for 230 yards.
"They're much more balanced than they were last year," Kelly said. "[You can] go ahead and take away LeSean McCoy. Matt Cavanaugh is a smart coordinator; he has other weapons now. We're going to have to play excellent defense to slow them down."
Both programs are starved for national attention. Pitt's only Big East title carries a dubious distinction. In 2004, the Panthers tied for first at 4-2 with three other teams. That season, the Big East lost Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC and had yet to add Cincinnati, Louisville and USF from Conference USA. Pitt was rewarded with a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, where it was routed by undefeated Utah.
Pitt has been out of the spotlight for several seasons, but Cincinnati never really has been in it. The Bearcats shared a Conference USA title in 2002. They last won an outright title in 1964 in the Missouri Valley. In between, Cincinnati was a largely undistinguished independent.
Now, Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium will be the site of the biggest game in school history. At 35,000, its capacity is bigger only than Duke's and Wake Forest's among major conference schools.
"It will be an energized crowd," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "That's one part of it. What's more important is that they have an outstanding football team. … It doesn't get any better than that."
Pittsburgh offensive line vs. Cincinnati defensive line. Cincinnati has one of the best defensive fronts in the league. E Connor Barwin leads the league in sacks with seven but hasn't recorded one since Oct. 11. The Bearcats need him to disrupt the timing of QB Bill Stull. Pitt lost C Robb Houser for the season, moving G C.J. Davis to his spot. How Davis and the interior line handles Bearcats T Terrill Byrd will determine how much of a role LeSean McCoy will play in this game.
Player to watch
Rutgers LB Ryan D'Imperio. The Scarlet Knights are one win away from bowl eligibility after starting 1-5. They have a chance for seven wins, as their final two games are against Army on Saturday and struggling Louisville on Dec. 4. Rutgers has struggled with the triple option already this season, when Navy ran for 272 yards in a victory over the Scarlet Knights. Army brings a similar attack led by FB Collin Mooney, who has rushed for at least 170 yards in four games this season and more than 200 in two. D'Imperio had three sacks against USF last week; he won't match that against Army. Instead, Rutgers needs its middle linebacker to be a sound run-stuffer.
Rutgers has won four in a row since starting 1-5 and can become bowl eligible with a win over Army. … Rutgers WR Kenny Britt didn't have a touchdown catch in the first seven games but has five in the past three. He has caught 22 passes for 423 yards in that span. … Freshman Dave Teggart has made all nine of his field-goal attempts since being named Connecticut's starting kicker. … Cincinnati leads the Big East in three special-teams categories: punting, kickoff coverage and kickoff returns.
USF is 4-7 in the Big East since reaching No. 2 in the Oct. 14 Associated Press poll last season. … Louisville is a league-worst minus-7 in turnover margin in Big East games. … Syracuse QB Cameron Dantley is 7-of-28 passing for 57 yards with an interception in his past two games. … Cincinnati K Jake Rogers has missed his last four kicks, including three in poor weather at Louisville. Rogers had made 13 in a row before this cold streak.
What they're saying
"I ran out of time. As always, I'm optimistic. I think with more time I could do better. Obviously, I didn't get it done. That's the bottom line. I understand why the decision was made, so I go from there." – Syracuse coach Greg Robinson, who was told this week he would not return.
"Greg Robinson is a friend of mine, Greg Robinson is a class act, Greg Robinson is a heck of a football coach and I absolutely hate it with all my heart to see such a class man leave the Big East, and I'll take no further questions regarding that situation, please." – West Virginia coach Bill Stewart.
"There's no need to point any fingers. If you want to point any fingers, point them all at me. I hired Steve, and I hired that whole staff." – Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, on coach Steve Kragthorpe, as reported in The Louisville Courier-Journal.
"We've got some guys that are banged up, quite honestly. We have some guys that were in there when we won [five] in a row that aren't playing. We have some young guys playing. We've got to develop them quickly. The guys who are taking their places are not coming along as fast as we were hoping they would come along." – USF coach Jim Leavitt.
Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, a Syracuse alum and former Orange assistant, said he does not want to be considered for the school's now-vacant head-coaching position. … USF QB Matt Grothe says he will play Sunday against Connecticut. He has been wearing a protective boot on his ankle since Saturday's loss to Rutgers. … Louisville CB Woodny Turenne will miss the rest of the season with a broken collarbone. He leads the league with five interceptions. … Connecticut QB Tyler Lorenzen made his first start since Sept. 26 against Louisville after returning from a broken foot. He was 7-of-15 passing for 70 yards against Syracuse. … West Virginia backup QB Jarrett Brown is expected to be available for the Louisville game after missing four weeks with a thigh bruise and shoulder injury. … West Virginia C Mike Dent (neck) will miss a second consecutive game.