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September 25, 2009

Mailbag: Can Pitt win Big East title?

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It is said good things come to those who wait. Maybe Pittsburgh finally has waited long enough.

Pitt was a charter member of the Big East when it formed as a football conference in 1991. But in 17 years of competition, the Panthers have yet to win an outright championship.

Oh, there was the 2004 title the Panthers shared with Boston College, West Virginia and Syracuse. Even then, though, Pitt backed into its share by virtue of Syracuse's season-ending upset of BC. Pitt's reward was a chance to be routed 35-7 by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl.

This season might be different. The Panthers have an experienced team led by an obviously improved quarterback and boosted by a freshman running back. Will that be enough to propel the Panthers to their first outright Big East crown?

We'll have to wait and see. The Panthers have been waiting since '91, so what's a few more weeks?

Beast of the Big East?

From Lou in Greensburg, Pa.: I'm as realistic as they come, but I see Pitt winning the Big East outright and getting to a "good" BCS game. How do you think the Panthers will do? Also, how soon do you think it is before a Big East team competes for a national title, and which team do you think it will be?

Pitt was the media's pick to win the Big East, and so far the Panthers look like strong contenders.

Eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters returned from last season's team, which finished 9-4. But there were questions about the Panthers because star running back LeSean McCoy left early for the NFL - and because quarterback Bill Stull was back.

Stull threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine) last season with McCoy lined up behind him. With his inconsistency and without McCoy, Pitt seemed like a risky pick.

But through games against Youngstown State, Buffalo and Navy, Stull has completed 70 percent of his passes for 540 yards and six touchdowns, with only one interception.

True, the caliber of competition will be more challenging in upcoming weeks, but Stull's play has given the Panthers a realistic shot in the Big East. So does the emergence of true freshman running back Dion Lewis, who has already gained 398 yards, including an 85-yard touchdown run against Buffalo. He has helped ease the loss of McCoy.

The Panthers have minimized turnovers and converted 13-of-16 trips into the red zone into touchdowns. They're also sound defensively, with 15 sacks.

Attrition also is boosting the Panthers' chances. USF took a major hit with quarterback Matt Grothe lost for the season with an injury. Rutgers already has lost a league game.

Yet, as well as Pitt has played, Cincinnati strikes me as strongest team in the Big East. The Bearcats' rebuilt defense hasn't allowed more than 18 points in a game, wide receiver Mardy Gilyard is one of the most exciting players in the country and quarterback Tony Pike is on the verge of becoming a Heisman contender.

The conference championship could be settled in the final week of the season when Cincinnati travels to Pittsburgh. Playing at Heinz Field will give the Panthers an edge.

Cincinnati is ranked 14th and has the potential to climb into the top 10. But I don't see a Big East team as a legitimate national title contender this season. Maybe the Bearcats or Panthers will prove me wrong.

Title talk for Miami

From Gajtis in Tirana, Albania: After Miami's win over Georgia Tech, how far could this team go? If the Hurricanes beat Virginia Tech, could one count them in for a spot in the BCS or even the national championship picture?

Is that crow that's on the lunch menu this week? If so, I might have to order a plate.

Three weeks ago, a reader asked if Miami could win its first four games over Florida State, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma, all of which opened the season in the top 25. My response was the Hurricanes had a better chance to lose all four.

But the Hurricanes are 2-0 headed into Saturday's showdown at Virginia Tech.

Sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris has demonstrated tremendous poise and accuracy and should be viewed as a Heisman contender based on his performance: 656 yards and five TDs in the first two games.

If Harris leads the Hurricanes to a victory at Virginia Tech, they will have a tremendous advantage in the Coastal Division race because of victories over two division rivals.

Miami already has climbed to No. 9 in The Associated Press poll. A win over No. 11 Virginia Tech would further boost the Hurricanes. Follow that up with a win over No. 10 Oklahoma and they would be in the national championship discussion.

After the Virginia Tech and Oklahoma games, Miami faces Florida A&M and UCF. The Hurricanes likely would be 6-0 with victories over four high-profile teams when the BCS standings first come out. Does Florida's schedule thus far compare to Miami's? Does Texas' or Ole Miss' or Penn State's? Not even close.

Of course, that's assuming the Hurricanes beat Virginia Tech and Oklahoma, which may have quarterback Sam Bradford back in the lineup by then.

But obviously the Hurricanes have a much better shot at hitting that grand slam than I thought they did a few weeks ago.

Tressel on chopping block?

From Harry in Long Island, N.Y.: Does Ohio State coach Jim Tressel need to be fearful for his job? If so, does he deserve it?

Only in college football could that be a legitimate question.

Jim Tressel took over as coach when Ohio State could not beat Michigan. He's now 7-1 against the Wolverines. In 2002, he took the Buckeyes to their first national championship in 34 years. His teams have played for two other national championships. Ohio State has won or shared the Big Ten championship in each of the past four years. His record at Ohio State is 85-20.

Yeah, fire that guy.

Tressel made some questionable decisions in the 18-15 loss to USC, and he is too conservative at times. But he still is one of the top 10 coaches in college football.

Of course, sometimes in college football strange things happen.

Texas A&M fired R.C. Slocum, their most successful coach, who never had a losing season. Auburn fired Tommy Tuberville even though he'd been successful and dominant against Alabama. Syracuse fired Paul Pasqualoni, who had just one losing season. So, anything is possible.

Tressel need not be fearful, though. He's not going to get fired.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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