There's no O. Henry twist or cheap M. Night Shyamalan gimmick at the end of the 2009 Big East season. Cincinnati's players saw this coming the moment the league schedule first came out.
"We knew the Big East championship was going through Pittsburgh," Bearcats tight end Ben Guidugli said. "We talked about this game while we were lifting weights, while we were at camp. This is the game we've been waiting for."
It's the game the entire Big East has waited for, at least ever since both teams clearly established themselves as the league's two best back in October.
Technically, Saturday's game at Heinz Field isn't a conference championship title event like those that will be staged in Atlanta, Dallas and Tampa this week. But it functions just the same, since the Big East trophy will be on hand for one team to hoist after the final gun (technically Cincinnati would be league co-champion if it loses, but somehow we doubt the Bearcats will be in the mood to do much celebrating in that scenario).
The outcome affords potential dizzying highs and baleful lows for each side. The No. 5 Bearcats (11-0, 6-0) still have hopes of reaching the BCS title game if Nebraska upsets Texas on Saturday. Or they could lose to Pitt and fall to the Meineke Car Care Bowl, while possibly seeing coach Brian Kelly bolt for Notre Dame.
The No. 15 Panthers (9-2, 5-1) can validate the Dave Wannstedt era with their first BCS bid since 2004. But a loss would send them tumbling way down the Big East bowl food chain, possibly to a mid-December outpost in Birmingham, Ala. or St. Petersburg, Fla.
"We're not really even thinking about losing," Pitt quarterback Bill Stull said. "There are so many positives on our side for this game. It's at home and it's senior day. That alone gives us a burning desire to win this game."
The game offers a fascinating contrast in two distinctly different, but almost equally effective, offensive styles.
Kelly runs a high-tempo, spread system that places quarterback Tony Pike in the shotgun, allowing him to deliver quickly to whichever of his many receivers are open -- or more open, as is usually the case. The Bearcats, who are the sixth-highest scoring team in the FBS, strike so fast it's as if they're in a perpetual two-minute drill.
Wannstedt, clinging to his NFL and defensive roots, prefers an old-school power running game that still finds gainful employment for fullbacks and multiple tight ends. But it's far from monolithic, as the Panthers use the running skills of freshman Dion Lewis to set up deep passes for skilled wideouts like 6-foot-5 Jonathan Baldwin and hybrid athlete Dorin Dickerson. Pitt ranks 22nd in the nation in scoring.
"Both offenses can be very prolific and move the ball," said UConn coach Randy Edsall, whose team lost by three points at Pitt and by two at Cincinnati. "What is comes down to is, can Cincinnati stop Pitt's running game and play-action game, and is Pitt going to be able to stop the passing attack? Whichever defense makes the most stops is going to win. It should be a tremendous game."
Each team is likely to stick with what it does best. Pitt will try to get pressure up front with its terrific defensive line, hoping to disrupt the rhythm for Pike, who threw six touchdown passes last week in his return from a left forearm injury.
"I would be hard-pressed to find a weakness on their team," Panthers linebacker Max Gruder said. "Right when you turn the film on, you see how many playmakers they have. They're going to make completions, because they always do; we just have to tackle well when they do."
Despite playing on grass in potentially near-freezing weather, Kelly said he doesn't plan on altering his style much. The Bearcats will shoot for the big play on offense and hope their defense holds up better than it did in recent games against UConn and Illinois.
"It's just going to be one team's will against the other in the end," Cincinnati linebacker Andre Revels said.
And the Big East couldn't have scripted a more appropriate ending to the 2009 season.