The Pitt Panthers lost all but the slimmest chances of winning the Big East Conference championship when they were beaten Saturday by Cincinnati.
The Panthers (4-5, 2-2) could win the conference title but they are in such a deep hole behind the Bearcats (7-1, 3-0) that a winning scenario is unlikely. But Pitt coach Todd Graham insists the Panthers still have their eyes on the championship prize, so he's approaching the next three games -- starting Saturday at Louisville (5-4, 3-1) -- as if Pitt is still in the race.
Conference championship aside, the Panthers may have to win their remaining games to guarantee a trip to a bowl game.
Pitt must win two games to become bowl-eligible at six victories, but 6-6 teams are not guaranteed a postseason invitation.
- What: Pitt (4-5, 2-2 Big East) vs. Louisville (5-4, 3-1).
- When: Noon Saturday.
- Where: Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, Ky.
- TV: WTAE.
The Panthers would be virtually a lock for a bowl if they finish at 7-5. But none of their three remaining games appear to be easy wins. Pitt is at Louisville, at West Virginia and at home against Syracuse.
Graham said that playing in a bowl game is an important goal and one he hopes the players embrace because the seniors deserve a chance to play in the postseason.
Graham, in his first year at Pitt, said the senior class gets the short end of a coaching transition and he appreciates the way this group of seniors has supported him and the new coaching staff, as well as given him their maximum effort every game.
"This a special bunch of seniors and when I came here I really reached out to them. I told them about what our commitment was and we have showed that to them," Graham said Monday at his weekly news conference. "We burned Isaac Bennett's redshirt because we want an opportunity to win now. We are committed to that and they have been committed to me. They are a great bunch of young men and they don't get the chance to have another senior year.
"I will probably get another shot next year. But my heart goes out to them because 4-5 is not where I wanted to be. I don't believe we are a 4-5-football team. As long as I am leading we are going to focus on winning championships. Our [main] goal is not to go to a bowl game, but we want to do that for our seniors. Whatever we can do to make their experience the best one then that will be our focus."
Graham said there are many reasons the Panthers are not where they wanted to be at this point in the season, but the biggest one is execution in close games.
Pitt has had an opportunity to win the five games it has lost. In four of them the Panthers blew second-half leads and had the ball in the fourth quarter with a chance to win but weren't able to make enough plays.
Had the Panthers gone 3-2 or even 2-3 in their five losses, they would be bowl-eligible and likely still would be a contender for the Big East title.
"When I came in the beginning of the year I said we had to win a lot of close football games and we have lost every close game," Graham said. "If I had to put a finger on it then I would say it is a lack of execution, which is a result of not being disciplined in our system in what we're doing. I believe it comes down to leadership, and that is our job as coaches, and I believe leadership is what wins those close games.
"It's tough for me because what I think about is this team, this season and what we're doing to get better every day. We need to go and beat Louisville and we can't really look past that. We need to go on the road, beat Louisville and then go on to the next game."
Graham said his team has not quit, nor have they lost because they haven't played hard enough. They just haven't made enough plays, and that has deepened the frustration of the upperclassmen in the program, considering how close they've come to winning the Big East title the past three seasons.
Despite that frustration, he said, the foundation has been laid for future success.
"I think the future is bright because of that and I'm not talking about next year, but the next three games," Graham said. "The guys know we are very close. It is gut-wrenching because we know we're close but in the end we beat ourselves in turnovers. That is tough when you have players who are laying it all down on the line, especially defensively and our seniors.
"The seniors mean a lot to me and they don't get another year. But our guys are sick of losing. They are sick of being up one week then down the next. Some of these guys have been putting in work for five years, which is longer than I have invested. But we have strong relationships and we have laid down a great foundation so far. "
Paul Zeise: email@example.com , 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.