Pitt takes the hard road in opener

The Pittsburgh-Utah game was originally scheduled for the second week of this season, but Dave Wannstedt wanted it moved to the opener.

Wannstedt didn't like the idea of making the long trip to Salt Lake City and back with games sandwiched around the travel. And he saw a benefit of having it serve as the first game.

"It gives you something going through training camp to shoot for," the Pitt coach said. "It makes it a little bit more of a training camp with a sense of urgency from the coaches and the players."

That's looking on the bright side.

There's no getting around the fact that this is a difficult assignment with a lot on the line for the No. 15 Panthers. Pitt has aspirations of a Big East title and beyond after winning nine games in 2008 and 10 a season ago. This could be the final hurrah for star players like Jon Baldwin, Greg Romeus and even Dion Lewis, who's a draft-eligible sophomore. A loss out of the gate could kill any early momentum.

So playing at Utah is not the path of least resistance. The Utes have been one of the nation's most successful programs the past decade, winning nine straight bowls and two BCS games (including the '05 Fiesta Bowl romp over Pitt). They were the last team to beat Alabama. They've won 17 straight at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

But the Panthers are trying to look on the bright side. If they pull off this early road victory, that should garner even more attention and help them climb the polls. They have a schedule (including dates with Miami and Notre Dame in the nonconference) that will give them a strong résumé if they can get into the BCS title hunt.

Of course, it all starts Thursday night.

"Everyone has been thinking about this game all summer," offensive tackle Jason Pinkston said. "If we win that game, that will give us a lot of momentum into the season. We could have a great season."

A loss in the opener doesn't necessarily wreck the season, either. Oregon looked terrible in a first-week defeat at Boise State last year but rebounded to win the Pac-10 and go to the Rose Bowl. Virginia Tech fell to Alabama in its opener and still won 10 games. Pitt's main goal is to win the Big East for the first time under Wannstedt and for the first time outright ever. So whatever happens in Week 1 doesn't really affect that mission.

Still, the Panthers want to show that they've turned the corner and are a national contender. And there's some Big East pride on the line versus the Mountain West -- Utah has never lost to a Big East team in seven tries.

"It's definitely a statement game and definitely an important game for us to start out the season strong," Romeus said.

If not, at least Pitt won't have to worry about this next year. The Utes' return game in Pittsburgh is scheduled for Oct. 15, 2011.