by Alan Robinson

PITTSBURGH (AP)—Pitt’s season will play out with season-ending games against Notre Dame, West Virginia and Cincinnati, three ranked opponents in a month’s time for a team that hasn’t played a Top 25 team since last season’s Sun Bowl.

The difficult stretch will tell coach Dave Wannstedt’s No. 16 Panthers if they are Big East championship-worthy and ready to play in a BCS bowl, or if their 7-1 start can be credited to a favorable schedule.

The No. 25 Fighting Irish, No. 20 Mountaineers and No. 5 Bearcats represent as many ranked teams as Pitt has played in the last two seasons combined, and that includes the Sun Bowl against Oregon State. Pitt (4-0 in Big East) has never played better during Wannstedt’s five seasons, but they’ve never been tested like they soon will be.

Are they ready? They think so. First, there’s a Big East game against Syracuse (3-4, 0-2) Nov. 7, one Wannstedt insists the Panthers can’t overlook. Last season, the Orange upset Notre Dame a week before the Irish played Southern Cal.

“Syracuse is a conference game, and it is a priority,” Wannstedt said. “We used to talk in the NFL that, until this point, it’s all talk whether you’re a contender or a pretender. I think our guys now should get a taste that we could be a contender.”

Pitt doesn’t have to travel far to finish the season. Syracuse, Notre Dame and Cincinnati play at Heinz Field, and the only remaining trip is the 75-mile jaunt to Morgantown. The Panthers don’t have to get on a plane again until their bowl game.

While his team is mostly staying at home, Wannstedt took advantage of the Panthers’ off week to spend some time recruiting.

The Panthers’ climb the last two seasons—they’re 16-5 since the start of the 2008 season—is largely the result of their recruiting success in Pennsylvania and its neighboring states. Wannstedt doesn’t want that slipping while he’s taking care of on-field matters.

While Pitt was the preseason choice in the Big East, it was difficult to envision in August that the Panthers would be so strong at quarterback and running back, the two primary positions of worry before the season began.

Bill Stull, so shaky at the end of last season that he threw for only 52 yards in the Sun Bowl, has been one of college football’s most improved players. He has thrown 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions, a major upgrade over last season’s nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Running back Dion Lewis also has been a major surprise, rushing for 1,029 yards and 11 touchdowns only a year after he was finishing his high school career in New Jersey. He’s been so consistent with five 100-yard games that the Panthers haven’t missed former star LeSean McCoy nearly as much as they thought they would. McCoy left for the NFL after two seasons and has been an impressive rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles.

“Nobody’s been more productive for their team that he (Lewis) has been,” Wannstedt said.

This is Pitt’s best-balanced team in seasons, with a 1,000-yard rusher, a steady quarterback, a tight end (Dorin Dickerson) who leads all BCS receivers with nine touchdown catches and a deep-threat receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who averages 20.4 yards per catch.

Pitt must win at least three of its final four for its first 10-win regular season since 1981, when the Panthers went 10-1 before beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. This is Pitt’s best start since 1982, when it also was 7-1 but finished 9-3.

“We’ve still got a lot of games left to play,” Dickerson said. “We’re starting to get better, but every game we’re going to keep getting better until we get ourselves in a position of where we want to be.”

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