Published November 23, 2012
PITTSBURGH – Senior linebacker Khaseem Greene will be long gone before Rutgers ever takes a snap as a member of the Big Ten.
Forgive Greene if he's not exactly caught up in the hype surrounding the school's decision to bolt the Big East for more stable ground in 2014.
"At the end of the day, we ain't winning no Big Ten championship this year," Greene said.
The Big East, however, is another matter entirely.
The 21st-ranked Scarlet Knights (9-1, 5-0 Big East) can clinch at least a share of the conference title with a victory Saturday in Pittsburgh. Heady territory for a program that's been playing football for 143 years.
It's a benchmark Rutgers was on the verge of reaching a year ago, only to lose to Connecticut in the regular season finale. The memory still stings, though the Scarlet Knights believe it can also be an important reminder on not overlooking anyone, particularly the Panthers (4-6, 1-4).
"We can learn a lot from that (Connecticut loss) and understand that every team is dangerous and every team has good players and if you're not ready to go and don't take a team seriously they can come up and surprise you," senior defensive tackle Scott Vallone said.
Something the Panthers (4-6, 1-4) have done a couple of times this season. They stunned Virginia Tech in September when the Hokies were still considered dangerous and nearly knocked off top-ranked Notre Dame last month, falling in triple overtime.
Like Rutgers, Pitt is making a beeline for another conference. The Panthers will join the ACC next fall. Like Rutgers, Pitt is hoping to maximize its final days in the conference it has called home for the last two decades, even if the Panthers' goals at this point are a bit more modest than vying for a Bowl Championship Series berth.
Pitt needs to win each of its final two regular season games to become bowl eligible for a fifth straight season. It's not exactly the conference title the Panthers talked about in August, but it's something.
"We're definitely in touch with reality and what we have to do," wide receiver Devin Street said. "We know we have to beat Rutgers. We know we have to beat South Florida, too. It's something we want to do for the seniors."
A class that has seen more than its fair share of tumult. The Panthers have burned through four head coaches — six if you count a pair of interims — and more than a handful of missed opportunities over the last four years.
They believe they're heading in the right direction under first-year coach Paul Chryst, who has won the locker room over with his straightforward approach. It's only a matter of time, they figure, before winning games follows suit.
"The older guys we talk about it all the time, we hope (Chryst) stays around for a long time," senior center Ryan Turnley said. "We think he can take this program to great heights. We think he's a great coach. We've had a lot of coaches and he's going to take Pitt where everyone wants to see."
Delaying Rutgers' party for at least a week would be a step in the right direction.
Good luck with that.
The Scarlet Knights have been the Big East's biggest surprise, riding a dominant defense that has overcome the flurry of mistakes by sophomore quarterback Gary Nova, who has turned it over 11 times in the last four games. Save for a peculiar — not to mention stunning — upset loss to Kent State, Rutgers has been the steadiest team in a conference where teams look either great or awful from week to week.
The goal now is to not get caught looking ahead. A showdown with Louisville looms next weekend. First things first, however. And the Scarlet Knights can add a very big first if they can win their final meeting with Pitt for the foreseeable future.
"Obviously, we want to finish it up and be the lone Big East champions but we know that if we win this week we accomplish something that has never happened in school history," Nova said. "It's an accomplishment in itself but as a team, as competitors, we want to play in a BCS bowl game and represent this school."
Pitt didn't begin the season talking about playing spoiler. It's a role, however, they've relished in years past, none more memorable than an upset of rival West Virginia in 2007 that derailed the Mountaineers' hopes for a national title.
The stakes aren't quite as high this time, but the Panthers would love nothing more than to start building some forward momentum heading into the ACC while sending the 18 seniors out with a victory in their final home game.
"We're playing for the coaches, and we're playing for us as a team," defensive lineman Aaron Donald said. "So, it would be great to win these last two games to be bowl eligible and give these seniors a bowl to go out with. That's why we're working so hard this week. We still have a lot to accomplish this season."
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP