West Virginia's Jock Sanders openly questioned why Pittsburgh was picked as the preseason favorite during Big East media day in August. The Panthers saw that but never publicly responded.
"They can say that all they want," Pitt's Dom DeCicco said Monday. "They have a chance to prove it Friday. If they didn't think we are the number one team, they have a chance to prove it."
The Panthers have lived up to preseason billing as Big East favorites so far. They still are the only team left that controls its own destiny.
They've been the targets for everybody since the summer and especially after racing out to a 3-0 start in conference play. They have had to try to stay focused each week instead of staring at the standings and thinking about a BCS game.
"One game and it can be all over," fullback Henry Hynoski said. "As far as we're concerned, we're tied with everybody in the conference. We've got to play like we're down in the conference to keep our edge."
Keeping that edge shouldn't be a problem this week. In last year's Backyard Brawl, Pitt knew the outcome really didn't matter as far as the Big East race. The title was going to be decided the following week against Cincinnati regardless. Not to say the Panthers weren't fired up against West Virginia, because they always are, but they also weren't terribly upset about losing in Morgantown.
“It was definitely different last year knowing that a week later was the more meaningful game," Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We were coming off of a big win against Notre Dame at home and West Virginia was really sandwiched in between there. You would really like this to be the last game of the year. But the way the scheduling falls, that’s not possible."
Pitt has another game after this one -- a grudge match at Cincinnati -- but this feels like it's for all the marbles. Which is the way it should be with this rivalry.
"Everyone is just thrilled right now," Hynoski said. "This is why you play college football, for rivalries like this. It's something you think about every day at all hours. I was in class [Monday] thinking about the game. You can't avoid it."
Despite standing in first place since Big East play began, the Panthers haven't had a truly overwhelming performance since their league opener at Syracuse. They sputtered in the first half against Rutgers, slogged through a win over Louisville, flopped at Connecticut and eked past South Florida last week. They are not playing with the crispness you'd expect from a conference champion.
"I don't think we've played our best football as a team yet," DeCicco said. " This would be the week for us to pull it out. But if we don't, then that's OK if it's like last week. As long as we win, it doesn't matter how ugly it is."
As long as they win, they'll still be in first place. And West Virginia won't have anything left to say.