PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh's first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference has looked an awful lot like the program's two decades in the Big East.
A couple of invigorating wins. A couple of mystifying losses. And one major road block between an average year and something considerably more promising.
Already assured of a sixth straight bowl berth, the Panthers (6-5, 3-4 ACC) host the Hurricanes (8-3, 4-3) on Friday with a chance to bolster a resume that already includes victories over Notre Dame and suddenly formidable Duke. Add Miami to that list and Pitt's first trip through the crowded middle of the ACC takes on a decidedly rosier hue.
Asked about the between difference between going 7-5 and finishing .500 for a third straight season, senior guard Ryan Schlieper just nods his head.
"I think it's huge," Schlieper said. "Every year I've played we've gone 6-6 and went to a bowl game and lost and went 6-7. I don't want that to happen."
Beating the Hurricanes would make that mathematically impossible. Of course, beating Miami has been just about impossible in general for the Panthers over the last 16 years. The Hurricanes have won the last seven meetings between schools that met regularly from 1993-2003 when both programs were in the Big East.
Pitt's last victory came in 1997, when the 18 Panthers seniors who will play the final home game of their careers were still in elementary school.
Even as Miami's profile has dimmed in recent years, the Hurricanes remain a measuring stick for other schools looking to prove themselves.
Then again, the Hurricanes are trying to do the same. They stirred the echoes during a 7-0 start. Reality and a slew of injuries set in over the next three weeks in blowout losses to Florida State, Virginia Tech and the Blue Devils. Miami avoided calamity by drumming hapless Virginia last Saturday. A victory over the Panthers and more than a bit of help over the weekend could propel the Hurricanes to a rematch with the Seminoles in the ACC title game.
Five things to look for as an old Big East rivalry is renewed.
CORNERED HURRICANES: Miami's undermanned secondary must deal with the one-two punch of Pittsburgh wide receivers Tyler Boyd and Devin Street. The Hurricanes lost cornerbacks Nate Dortch and Corn Elder to season-ending surgery earlier this week. Defensive back Ladarius Gunter is also out with a neck strain. That leaves Tracy Howard — who returned an interception for a touchdown last week against Virginia — and a sea of inexperienced players to fill the void.
DONALD FOR HEISMAN?: Pitt senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a finalist for every major postseason award for his position. There's also a grassroots campaign for Donald to pick up some Heisman Trophy votes. Donald's numbers compare favorably to those put up by former Nebraska nose tackle Ndamukong Suh, who finished fourth in the 2009 Heisman race. A standout game against the high-profile Hurricanes could provide a late push.
BABY IT'S COLD OUTSIDE: The Hurricanes haven't spent much time in wintry places since they bolted the Big East for the ACC in 2004. Coach Al Golden, however, figures if his team is more concerned about the temperature in the 30s at kickoff than the Panthers, he's got bigger problems than the weather.
RESILIENT SAVAGE: Pitt quarterback Tom Savage has been sacked 40 times this season, more than all but five quarterbacks in the country. Yet he's managed to avoid major injury and remain effective despite the constant pressure. He's thrown nine touchdowns against two interceptions over Pitt's last seven games.
MORRIS' LAST STAND: Miami quarterback Stephen Morris' career won't end with a national championship. Still, he needs just 250 yards passing over his final two games to surpass Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta for third on the team's all-time list. Morris already has more career yards than Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde, Bernie Kosar and Steve Walsh.