Despite a 4-4 record 2/3 of the way into the season, Pitt still has a chance to win the Big East title. Technically, they still even hold their own destiny as winning out would guarantee the Panthers a BCS bowl appearance. Pitt ensured it's still relevant (for now) in the Big East title hunt with a 35-20 win over UConn last week.
This game is virtually a must-win for the Panthers. Cincinnati has yet to suffer a conference loss and if Pitt falls two games behind them, they'll need the Bearcats to lose three of their remaining four games against Rutgers, Syracuse, West Virginia, and UConn to even have a chance at winning the Big East. If the Panthers have aspirations of winning the conference, they really can't afford to lose this weekend.
Cincinnati comes into Heinz Field with the 11th ranked offense in the nation, but the real surprise of the team has been its defense. Defense has almost always been a problem for the Bearcats, but this year, they rank in the top 25 in points allowed, giving up less than 20 points per game. Part of that can be linked to the level of competition Cincinnati has faced to this point, though. The Bearcats had a fairly light non-conference schedule highlighted with games at Tennessee and home against North Carolina State, while mixing in contests against Austin Peay, Akron, and Miami (OH). Still, the defensive unit has played better this season and that's a big part of their 6-1 start.
Meanwhile, Pitt will enter its first game without Ray Graham. It's true that Graham exited early in the game against the Huskies, but the mindset had to have been different this week knowing they'll be going into a game without their best offensive weapon. The encouraging part for Pitt fans is that the team didn't miss a beat last week as Ray Graham had a big game catching nine passes out of the backfield for nearly 100 yards. The running attack is obviously not going to be as potent, but Brown's mix of speed and strength will help lessen the impact of Graham's injury. One positive is that offensive lineman, Lucas Nix, could be back for this game. That would not only help in potentially making the run game flow much easier, but should help in the protection of Tino Sunseri on passing plays.
The key in this one for Pitt is going to be bending but not breaking on defense. The Bearcats will almost certainly be able to move the ball, but it's what they do with it on Pitt's side of the field. If Pitt is going to be successful, limiting Cincinnati to field goals instead of touchdowns will be key. The Panthers can't afford to get into a shootout with Cincinnati and if Pitt has to come from behind late in the game (as they did against Iowa and Notre Dame), it won't be a good thing.
Pitt can win this game, though. The Panthers are 3-1 in home night games over the past few seasons and they always seem to play well in those situations. On the other side, Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros has struggled a bit lately, throwing six interceptions in his past four games. The game may be decided by how much Pitt can pressure him and getting a turnover or two would help immensely. Last year, they were able to do just that, forcing Collaros into his worst game of the season. He threw three interceptions and only completed half of his passes for 109 yards.
Lastly, Pitt has its collective backs against the wall as I mentioned. It's really 'do or die' mode for this team right now. The Bearcats, however, can afford to lose to Pitt and still remain in the hunt. Either way, we should have a clearer picture of the Big East race after this game.
With the game at home and everything to play for, I'll take the Panthers to pull off the upset, 24-20. For more on the Panthers and the upcoming game, check out SB Nation blog Cardiac Hill.