Pitt has done nothing to make anyone believe it will be an immediate force in the ACC, not with two abysmal performances to open the year in its lame-duck Big East season.
Can a good performance -- or even an upset victory -- over No. 13 Virginia Tech on Saturday do anything to dispel this notion? After all, we are getting a sneak preview of a Coastal Division matchup to come in 2013.
The truth is, this must be a measuring-stick game for Pitt -- not for this season but for its future. The Panthers can gauge how far they have to go to catch up to the likes of Virginia Tech, which smoothly made the same transition Pitt is about to make. Virginia Tech has found great success since it jumped from the Big East following the 2003 season, racking up four ACC championships and five BCS bowl appearances in eight years.
The Hokies have become the ACC flag bearer, the model program for consistent success. It all began in the Big East, of course, with three league championships and one appearance in the national championship game in 13 seasons. That momentum has continued in the ACC, something that has not happened for Miami and Boston College, which jumped from the Big East with the Hokies.
At the time all three departed, many believed Miami would come in and dominate the ACC with Florida State. Virginia Tech was largely an afterthought. The Hurricanes had gone 11-2 in their final Big East season; Virginia Tech was 8-5. Miami had played for the national championship in 2001 and 2002. Virginia Tech finished third in the Big East in 2001 and fourth in 2002.
Yet here are the Hokies, who have won at least eight games in each of the past 14 seasons, the longest active streak in major college football. Pitt can learn a lesson from Frank Beamer about what it takes to successfully navigate the transition since Miami and Boston College have proved that the switch is not as simple as it may seem. Neither team has won an ACC title, or made a BCS appearance as an ACC member; only Boston College has played for an ACC championship (2007, 2008).
"You look at it as a measuring stick in a lot of ways," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. "Obviously, we’re going into the ACC next year, and they’re in our division and I think one of the teams that set the standard in the ACC. And yet, if you just look at it just for this year, it’s a measuring stick. This is one of the best teams we'll play this season."
As of now, Virginia Tech is the highest-ranked team on Pitt's schedule, with games remaining against two currently ranked teams, Louisville and Notre Dame. But this one is much more important because it's against an ACC opponent.
Since the Hokies left, Pitt has not exactly dominated the Big East, falling short of expectations more often than not. This season has been particularly brutal as the Panthers have undergone their fourth coaching change in three years -- the instability at the top of the program clearly taking a toll. That is a major difference between the two schools: Beamer, in his 26th season, has been a rock at Virginia Tech. Since he became the Hokies' head coach in 1987, Pitt has had eight head coaches. It also helps explain why Virginia Tech has been so incredibly successful in the ACC. The Hokies have a proven head coach and the results to sell to kids on the recruiting trail. Pitt does not.
"They’ve had several coaching changes in the last couple of years, but when you go through a coaching change, there’s an adjustment period," Beamer said. "That’s the way it is. We always had respect for them; we have respect for them now.”
Pitt is now sitting at 0-2 for the first time since the 2005 season, when the Panthers started 0-3 -- just the third time they've started with that record in the past 40 years. That year, they did not pick up their first win until the fourth game and ultimately finished 5-6. That is not how Pitt wants to end its final season in the Big East.
The Panthers want to be where Virginia Tech is today: highly ranked and ACC preseason Coastal Division champ. On Saturday, we'll find out just how far away the Panthers are from achieving that goal.