In past years a game against a Big East opponent afforded the University at Buffalo an opportunity to legitimize its football team. Beating a Big East team would attract widespread notice. Beating a Big East team would create a sense of belief and accomplishment within and outside a program mired in a decade-long quest for respectability.
That's no longer the case. What happens Saturday, when Pittsburgh visits UB Stadium in a rematch of last year's 27-16 Panthers victory at Heinz Field, doesn't carry nearly the same weight it would have in previous seasons. The Bulls bagged more significant prey in knocking off undefeated and 12th-ranked Ball State in last year's Mid-American Conference championship game. There are eight games on the schedule far more important than this one, all of them involving MAC teams.
"We definitely want MAC wins over [those against] out-of-conference opponents," tight end Jesse Rack said at Tuesday's weekly news conference. "MAC wins get us toward the MAC championship, which is the ultimate goal. It's MAC championship, then bowl game."
Some publications in Pittsburgh are touting this as the most significant game in UB history. More important than last year's four-overtime victory at Akron? Sorry. More important than the double-overtime victory at Bowling Green that clinched the MAC East outright? Not even close. And then there's the aforementioned Ball State game, which serves as the program's pinnacle.
"Pitt is a team that's very, very good; we're very, very good," said Buffalo coach Turner Gill. "I think that we've done some things that have established our program that we're to be reckoned with. We can compete against anybody, most people in the country. So we play to win, and I anticipate us to play well and us to win the football game, same as their feelings too from that standpoint."
"They're a Big East team, but we believe we can compete with them," Rack said. "It's not so much that we're an underdog and they're this big, giant team. We feel like we're on an even plane with them, and last year's game could have gone either way."
The difference is that last year's Pitt game would have been a program-maker. This time around UB is out to validate its recent successes, prove last year's championship season was something other than divine intervention. Still, while defeating Pitt would provide a stamp of approval, losing does nothing to tarnish the past, enhance or diminish expectations for the rest of the season. Remember, Bowling Green knocked off Pitt last year, then squandered a 19-point lead at home to UB in what amounted to the MAC East title game.
Pitt's an interesting team, voted top dog in the Big East preseason poll, ranked 28th in the country based on votes garnered in the Associated Press Poll. Their defense is considered formidable, their running game retooled, their senior quarterback constantly suspect. The Panthers' season-opening win provided little insight considering Youngstown State is not only a Division I-AA school, but one that's average at best.
What UB has learned through the years, particularly in last year's loss to Pitt and the International Bowl loss to UConn, is that Big East teams are typically bigger, stronger and faster than the standard MAC fare. Pitt wore them down last year. So did UConn. It figures that it will take UB's best game to pull out a victory, not that they're under any obligation to put it forth here and now.
"This year we have goals," Rack said. "If we play an out-of-conference team and we do win, it's awesome. If we don't, it's not the end of the world. We have a goal, and it's to beat all the MAC teams that we play because we want to be undefeated in the MAC, because that's how you get to the MAC championship."