Now, all Pittsburgh can do is wait and hope. Tonight, the Panthers made an emphatic bid for the national championship, humiliating South Carolina, 37-9, in front of 72,297 Gator Bowl fans, a national television audience and, most important, the national pollsters.
Having finished their 11-1 season with a dominating performance from start to finish, the third-ranked Panthers hope that Notre Dame can beat top-ranked Georgia and Oklahoma can defeat second-ranked Florida State in New Year's Day bowls.
Those two results would almost undoubtedly give Pitt its second national title in five years. Tonight, the Panthers destroyed a team that had the Heisman Trophy winner in its backfield and 30,000 fans screaming for it from the start.
But George Rogers, the Heisman winner, was no match for Heisman runner-up Hugh Green and the rest of his defensive cohorts -- most notably, Green's running mate at defensive end, Ricky Jackson, who made 19 tackles as the bewildered Gamecocks, who finished 8-4, tried to double and triple team Green.
Rogers finished the night with 113 yards on 27 carries, his 22nd straight 100-yard game. But he also fumbled twice, the first time on the game's first play from scrimmage, a play that set the tone for the entire evening.
"I think it got him thinking twice every time he carried the ball," said Pitt linebacker Steve Fedell, who had two interceptions. "He knew from that moment on that he was going to get clocked every time he touched the ball."
The first Rogers fumble came after Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill, now 39-8-1 in four years with the Panthers, elected to kick off after winning the toss.
"If you look back on big games, the kind where there's a tremendous amount of hype and pressure going in, often the team that kicks off is the first one to make something happen and it sets up momentum for the whole game," said Sherrill. "I just throught with nerves being the way they were our defense might make something happen right away."
He was right. On the first play, Rogers took one step and got slammed by Jackson. The ball popped loose and safety Tom Flynn jumped on it at the 29-yard line.
From there, the Panthers needed nine plays, the last two a 17-yard Rick Trocano to Willie Collier pass and a one-yard Trocano plunge, to take a 7-0 lead 4:03 into the game.
About the only offensive success South Carolina had came when the Gamecocks used a no-huddle offense, a move designed to keep Pitt from changing its defensive scheme, which has 164 different variations.
USC got a 39-yard Eddie Leopard field goal with 7:05 left in the half after a 12-play drive with no huddles. The field goal made the score 10-3, Dave Trout having kicked a 36-yarder for Pitt, and it began to look like a game. But Sherrill, who seemed to work with a magic wand all night, then inserted Dan Marino at quarterback. The rangy sophomore had lost his job to Trocano after injuring a knee six games into the season but Sherrill had planned to use him tonight.
Calmly, Marino took the Panthers 59 yards in 11 plays, completing four of four passes for 39 yards on the way. The key plays in the drive were a 21-yard Marino to Mike Dombrowski pass that took the ball to the 14, a one-yard Marino sneak on fourth and one at the four and a three-yard lob pass for the touchdown on the next play from Marino to Collier. That made it 17-3 with 2:05 left.
Adding agony to embarrassment for the Gamecocks, tight end Willie Scott broke two tackles at the Pitt 32 on the last play of the half only to be dragged down by Lynn Thomas at the two as the clock ran out.
That proved to be an omen. Once the halftime bands finally cleared the field, Pitt did roughly the same thing to the Gamecocks during the third quarter, almost running them right back to Columbia.
First, Trout kicked a 26-yard field goal to make it 20-3 with 8:02 left. Fedell came up with his second interception at midfield -- after receiver Tim Gillespie bobbled the ball right into his hands -- and returned to the 41. From there, Pitt roared 41 yards in five plays, fullback Randy McMillan finishing the drive with a three-yard dive to make it 27-3 with 4:34 left.
Again South Carolina couldn't move and another short punt put the Panthers in business at the Gamecock 35. This time it took three plays. On third and 17 from the 42, Trocano threw a screen left to McMillan, who jumped one tackler, then coasted down the left sideline to make it 34-3 with 39 seconds left.
"We're the only one of the preseason top five still in the top five and I'm proud of that," said Sherrill, drenched from being tossed in the shower. "I don't know why anyone would think we would take South Carolina lightly. Our players respected them and we knew we had to get ahead to force them out of their two tight end offense and keep them from running Rogers 40 times. We did that."
The vaunted Rogers-Green struggle never developed. Green had just five tackles because of the double teams. But Jackson, the other defensive end tackled Rogers 15 times.
Then he went and sat at someone else's locker afterwards to see if anyone would recognize him. Few did.
"I guess I made my point," he said, laughing.
The same could be said for his entire team.