Virginia Tech is exactly where it wants to be at this point in the season: tied for the ACC's Coastal Division lead in the loss column and in control of its chance to play for its fifth conference championship.
The No. 25 Hokies (5-2, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) can significantly enhance their chances Thursday night at Pittsburgh. The Panthers (5-2, 2-1) also share the loss-column lead, although they have played two fewer division games than No. 22 North Carolina (6-2, 4-1) and one fewer than the Hokies.
Virginia Tech holds the tiebreaker against the Tar Heels, having beaten them 34-3 on Oct. 8, but in their first season under coach Justin Fuente, the Hokies are disinclined to look any further than the game just ahead. They won't even allow themselves to feel too good about reappearing in the AP Top 25.
''Of course we like being in the Top 25, but at the end of the day, we just want to win a football game, regardless of whether we're in the Top 25 or if we're not ranked at all,'' rover Terrell Edmunds said Monday, before offering a mantra for this team. ''We just want to go out and play Virginia Tech football and go 1-0 each week.''
The Hokies' last appearance in the Top 25 came two weeks ago, when consecutive routs of Boston College, East Carolina and North Carolina allowed them to rise to No. 17. But they were stunned 31-17 at Syracuse and fell out again before getting back to their dominant ways in a 37-16 victory against Miami last Thursday night.
The Panthers, though, present a significant challenge. They have won four in a row at Heinz Field against Virginia Tech, and are tied for 22nd nationally in scoring at 38.4 points per game.
Coach Pat Narduzzi, in his second season, said he was pretty frank with his team about what's at stake in the game.
''I told our kids, it's right there for you, the pursuit and what you want is right there for you,'' he said Monday. ''It's there for the taking. Everything you wanted to do at the beginning of the season is sitting right in front of you on this Thursday night.''
On defense, Pitt is fifth nationally at stopping the run, but 122nd against the pass.
Virginia Tech prefers to be a run-first team, but quarterback Jerod Evans has proven more than capable of getting things done through the air in his first season with the Hokies. He's thrown for 19 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
''They're a heavy run-stop team,'' Evans said. ''They will force you to throw in man-to-man coverage.''
Evans is comfortable doing that because he's got plenty of targets he trusts to come down with the ball. Isaiah Ford has 36 catches and five touchdowns. Bucky Hodges has 25 catches and five touchdowns. And five other receivers have at least one touchdown reception this year.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster, a holdover from the teams that have struggled at Heinz Field, said it's not the venue but the way the Panthers have played, and the way the Hokies have played, that produced the losses.
Now, with the Hokies angling for their first ACC title game berth since 2011, it's time to end the skid.
''If we want to stay in the hunt, we need to win it,'' Foster said. ''... It's been a couple years since we've been in this position, but these games get more and more important as we move forward in the season.''
Online: The AP's college football page: http://collegefootball.ap.org
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