Pitt Football: Postseason hinges on final Big East game

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Tonight's regular-season finale against South Florida is an important opportunity for Pitt in the first year of the Paul Chryst era. Win and the Panthers will go to a bowl game and, most important, get an extra 15 practices.

The game against the Bulls, though, also closes a significant chapter in Pitt's football history. When the clock hits triple zeroes at Raymond James Stadium tonight, it will signal the official end of Panthers football in the Big East, the only conference in which the football program has participated.

"You could look at it and be nostalgic in some ways because Pitt was very much a part of building the esteem of the conference," said former Pitt coach Walt Harris, who coached the Panthers for eight of their 22 years in the conference.

"Or you look at it and say, 'This is the way it is.' This is the way life is going nowadays in order to pay the bills. So, they're going to seek the money and forget about rivalries, so to speak. That's part of the way you go right now because things are changing."

The Panthers will move to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, and while there's no debate that Pitt's new conference home will provide more revenue and stability, Pitt will be leaving behind its share of memories in the Big East.

Harris led the Panthers to their first Big East title and a Fiesta Bowl bid in 2004. Pitt would claim a share of another league title under Dave Wannstedt in '10, but missed out on the league's BCS bid on tiebreakers.

Still, even Harris admits, it's time to move on.

"The players are still playing, the coaches are still coaching, and you develop other big games, other good rivalries," he said. "There's really no reason to hang on to the old days because times change."

With the mass exodus from the Big East over the past few seasons, the football league is starting to bear little resemblance to the one Pitt joined 21 years ago. Of the eight teams in the original Big East football conference, only one -- Temple, which was forced out of the league from 2004-12 -- is slated to remain over the coming seasons.

"It's not the same Big East," Pitt senior receiver Cam Saddler said. "If I was getting recruited, [Pitt] was still in the Big East and all this was going on, I don't think it'd be as appealing to come to Pitt if they were playing that conference schedule."

Still, while Saddler lamented that his younger teammates will get to play the "cool teams" of the ACC next year, he said he enjoyed his time in the Big East.

"It's fun. I committed here because I knew I was going to play in the Big East," he said. "That was a reason I came to Pitt, because I wanted to play in the Big East. Now as I'm leaving, it's kind of ending. I feel like the Big East is our conference."

With only one year in the league under his belt, Chryst didn't anticipate getting too teary-eyed when Pitt ends the Big East chapter of its history Saturday night.

"It won't be emotional in that way," Chryst said on the league's conference call this week. "I probably haven't been around the league long enough."

Instead, Chryst will be more focused on the task directly in front of him -- beating South Florida and reaching a bowl game. The Bulls have underachieved for most of the season and will be starting their third quarterback Saturday night after losing the first two to injuries.

But South Florida teams are known for their athleticism, and Pitt has had a tendency to struggle against teams it should beat this season.

The history may not matter now, but Pitt can take some inspiration from Harris' '04 team that earned the program's only BCS appearance. The Panthers' conference championship was in doubt until the final week of the season, when they went to South Florida and beat the Bulls, 43-14, to secure the league's BCS bid.

While virtually everyone in the Pitt program is excited about the move to the ACC, it only seems fitting that the final game in the Big East would have something riding on the line.

In this case, it's bowl eligibility.

"Every year, they always say how the Big East always struggled, but at the end, it always seemed like we were the conference where the last game actually mattered," Saddler said. "So I guess we were doing something right in our conference."


• Game: Pitt at South Florida, 7 p.m.

• TV: ESPN2.


Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.


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