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Savran: Be it Pitt or Toledo, the name's the thing

Saturday, September 27, 2003

What's in a name? Everything. Especially in the world of college football. It's not a question of "what have you done for me lately?" There's not even a "what have you done?" It's all a matter of who you are, a classic case of perception becoming reality.

If you are Northern Illinois or Toledo or Miami of Ohio, no matter what you've done, you're regarded as a lucky little gnat that accidentally bit an elephant in just the right spot to knock him over. Not to be taken too seriously, an anomaly in a world of big-name, big-school certainty.

If you're Marshall, you've got a more recognizable name -- primarily because of "name" players such as Randy Moss and Chad Pennington -- but generally remain regarded as a bigger gnat beating up on all the little gnats in that annoying little conference named like an ATM card.

The reverse also is true. Kansas State has a "name" because it beats up on lesser known teams.

It is ranked in the preseason and remain there because it plays a schedule that would make the most brazen athletic director blush.

Even after they lose at home to Marshall, they remain in the Top 25 because they are, after all, Kansas State. If you were totally unaware of their recent past and looked only at their schedule and record this year, you'd shake your head and say, "What are they doing in the rankings?"

You might say the same about Pitt.

A caller to my talk show this week questioned whether Pitt got jobbed after dropping precipitously in the polls after the embarrassment authored by a perceived No-Name U.


If you, Rip Van Winkle, woke up this morning and looked at a loss to Toledo buttressed by two wins against true No-Name/No-Program Kent State and Ball State, provincialism aside, you'd have a tough time convincing yourself Pitt belonged anywhere near the Top 25, let alone a brief appearance in the Top 10.

Number nine with a bullet? Based on what?

Expectations. It certainly couldn't have been grounded in performance, present or past.

The truth is, Pitt has one win over a quality opponent in its past 15 games ... that being the great win at Virginia Tech. That's it.

The bowl win was nice, but Oregon State was a good team, not a great one. And, if you seek to define your program, you need to beat top teams before you can consider yourself to be one ... thus gaining favored-nation status with the pollsters no matter whom you play or beat. See Kansas State.

The elite also don't define their programs by how well they play in defeat.

Outside of Ohio State, no team gave Miami (of Florida, not Ohio) a tougher time last season than Pitt. It certainly was a game it could have and, perhaps, should have won. But it didn't. And until the Panthers do, they cannot list that on their resume as validation of how good they have become.

It can be a measuring stick for where they are, and how close they are to arriving at where they'd like to be, but losing by a close margin cannot be used to define the program.

Because of the mechanism of the preseason polls, which use name recognition and expectation as the foundation for those rankings, many declared Pitt's program to be "back."

You'd be better off using tea leaves and tarot cards, because the facts don't support the contention. Not those from last season, and certainly not from anything achieved in the current one.

That could change as early as this afternoon.

A win today would take some of the sting out of the Toledo loss, but let's keep in mind that Texas A&M is living on its name ... at least until it proves it's entitled to an upgrade. They beat Arkansas State and Utah (barely) and looked competitive in a dual loss to Virginia Tech and Hurricane Isabel.

But there's that "defining one's worth in defeat" thing again.

Still, a win today over a "name" program and Pitt again will be looked upon favorably. A loss, however, likely would relegate this year to yet another almost-there-but-not-quite season. If that happens, the preseason polls might not be so kind next summer.

The good news for Pitt is they have a quality schedule ahead, and that wins against schools that have a football team worthy of their "name" would signal real progress for the Panthers, not the artificial kind generated by the polls.

So the season is far from lost. Pitt will have a chance to actually prove its merit. Or not.

However it turns out, the answer will come on the football field, not from an Ouija Board preseason poll.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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