Pitt opens camp amid biggest preseason buildup since '82

Updated: August 11, 2003, 7:26 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Maybe it's fitting that Dan Marino was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame last weekend. As Pittsburgh's players arrived to start preseason practice Monday, they were greeted by a groundswell of interest missing since Marino's senior season in 1982.

That year, Pitt was ranked No. 1 in the preseason and stayed there for nearly two months while playing before consistently sold-out houses at now-demolished Pitt Stadium.

Now, coming off a 9-4 season and a second consecutive bowl victory, the Panthers expect to begin the season in the Top 10, or close to it, when they play Kent State on Sept. 6. Tickets are being sold faster than for any season since '82, with some sections of Heinz Field already sold out and others getting close to it.

The Panthers still are only No. 3 in the Big East, but they'll play Miami and Virginia Tech at home in what will be the final season in the conference for the Hurricanes and Hokies. With Notre Dame also traveling to Pittsburgh, creating even more interest in this season, the Panthers may finally have the kind of home-field advantage they've rarely enjoyed as a college team playing in a pro sports town.

Pitt coach Walt Harris even allowed himself to say the words "national championship," although he wasn't predicting that his team can realistically expect to challenge for the title this season.

"We understand there are a lot of expectations that have been put on us, which is fine, but the expectations we're focused on are our own," Harris said Monday. "Our goal is to win every game and win the national championship and the Big East championship.

"We think there's always a chance."

His remark was meant to reflect how far Pittsburgh has come since he arrived in 1997, taking over a team that lost 72-0 to Ohio State, 60-6 to Notre Dame and 55-7 to Syracuse the previous season. He also might have been looking to the future, to a revamped Big East that will lose its two strongest components in Miami and Virginia Tech starting next year.

"I don't think anybody had an idea of where we were in 1997, and I'm not saying that just to cover for me," Harris said. "We had a long way to go."

Even if most of Pitt's toughest games weren't at home this season, there still would have been high expectations for what could be the school's first double-digit win season since an 11-win season in 1981.

The top three offensive players -- quarterback Rod Rutherford, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and running back Brandon Miree -- are back, plus star defensive end Claude Harriott. Thanks to their upgraded recruiting, the Panthers may be deeper than at any time since they won the national championship in 1976.

The Panthers also have several other advantages. They will ease into the season with three consecutive games against Mid-American Conference teams -- hardly a challenging start -- before a Sept. 27 game at Texas A&M.

Also, with so much attention focused on the farewell season for Miami and Virginia Tech, the Panthers won't be the center of attention once the conference schedule starts. They will play Rutgers, Syracuse and Boston College before Miami and Virginia Tech visit Pittsburgh in November.

Harris is even promising to not be as tough on his players as in the past, at least during his postgame press conferences. Because he doubles as the quarterbacks coach, he admittedly was more critical of their play than the players at other positions. He now wonders if that might have affected the confidence and development of his quarterbacks.

"I need to look more at the big picture," he said. "I want us to play relaxed, loose and confident, not be tight and afraid to make mistakes and play not to lose."

With the opener less than a month away, his players don't seem to be lacking in confidence.

"To lose a game would be disappointing," Harriott said. "If we lose one game, it will be disappointing to me."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index