CINCINNATI (AP) - An enormous boat trophy was created in 2005, when Cincinnati entered the Big East and found another way to have a rivalry with Pittsburgh.
Only seven years later, the Bearcats (0-0) and Panthers (0-1) are playing the final game in the series, with the trophy - a 96-pound replica of a riverboat telegraph - up for permanent ownership. The schools open the Big East season on Thursday night at Nippert Stadium in a game that represents the beginning of the end for the conference as it's currently configured.
West Virginia has already left for the Big 12. Pitt and Syracuse are playing their final seasons before moving on to the ACC. The league will then take on more of a national look by adding teams from the South and the West Coast.
Unlike the league, that trophy won't be going anywhere after Thursday night.
"Being their last year here, there's a little something extra, especially since it's the last game, the finale," Cincinnati offensive guard Austen Bujnoch said. "That trophy stays with whoever the winner is."
After Thursday, the league will lose one of its best matchups.
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have longstanding rivalries in baseball (Reds and Pirates) and the NFL (Bengals and Steelers). They gave the Big East one of its greatest games in 2009, when the Bearcats and Panthers played a de facto league title game in the snow in Pittsburgh.
Cincinnati fell behind by 21 points, but receiver Mardy Gilyard rallied the Bearcats back. Tony Pike's 29-yard touchdown pass to Armon Binns with 33 seconds left gave Cincinnati a 45-44 win and a spot in the Sugar Bowl.
"That's probably the best game I've ever played in," said Binns, now a Bengals receiver. "It's such a great rivalry. Both teams love playing against each other. They really get up to play, and the games always seem to be special and come down to the last moments."
Cincinnati has won three of the last four, getting to keep the 46-inch-tall trophy that represents the device used to signal the engine room on a boat.
"I liked the trophy," Binns said on Wednesday. "It's huge. I can't carry it by myself. We always enjoyed it after we won."
The rematch finds the Panthers already soul-searching while the Bearcats are trying to figure out what they've got.
Pitt opened under new coach Paul Chryst on Saturday and was stunned by Youngstown State 31-17. The Football Championship Subdivision school never trailed as it beat a BCS team for the first time.
The Panthers had only a few days to get past the sting and get ready for Cincinnati.
"It's a short week, but a great challenge," Chryst said. "Certainly it will be good to get back to playing on Thursday night. We're turning the page here and we've got to learn many lessons from the Youngstown State game and get better in a short time here."
For the Panthers, it will be the start of their last Big East season.
"This is my last go-around, so all of these games are important to me, especially the ones in the Big East," senior center Ryan Turnley said. "So, it's a great opportunity for me."
The Bearcats have a very different team from the one that won a share of the league title last season, the third time in four years that they've won at least part of the championship. Munchie Legaux takes over for Zach Collaros at quarterback, and the Bearcats are using a running back-by-committee approach to try to replace Isaiah Pead.
Cincinnati has only four returning starters on offense, so there's no telling how it's going to look the first time out.
"The first game is uncertainty," coach Butch Jones said. "It's the unknowns. You try to prepare for everything, but you never really know until the lights come on."
The biggest questions revolve around Legaux, who started three games last season as a sophomore while Collaros recovered from a broken ankle.
"There's a difference between being a backup quarterback and being the starting quarterback," Jones said. "There's a lot of burdens and challenges, and I think those will be growing pains. But I think Munchie has done a great job with that to date."
Legaux has calmed down from last year, when he struggled in his first game as a starter.
"I was real nervous going into that game," Legaux said. "I'm a little nervous now, but after that first snap I'll be all right. On Thursday night, I'll be nervous (only) on the first play."
When it ends, the two schools will go separate ways in football. There have been no discussions so far about continuing the brief but impressive rivalry.
"I do think it's developed into one of the best rivalries for us," Jones said. "At some point, I'd like to see that resume. But as of right now, all we know is this is the last time we'll be playing Pittsburgh for a while."