Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Ole Miss Rebels
Saturday, Jan. 5, 1:00 p.m. ESPN
Legion Field (Birmingham, AL)
Line: Ole Miss -3.5
Entering Saturday’s BBVA Compass Bowl, you really only need to know two things and two things only about this game: For starters, this will be Pittsburgh’s third straight trip to Birmingham for this second-tier, easily forgotten bowl game. It will also be Ole Miss’ first bowl game period since the 2009 Cotton Bowl.
That means that while these two teams are pretty evenly matched on paper, motivation will be more of a factor in this game than any other this bowl season. We know Ole Miss will plenty excited heading into Saturday’s showdown at Legion Field, but well, will Pitt have any emotion at all?
That, above all, is the million dollar question heading into this year’s game.
Here is everything else you need to know about this year’s BBVA Compass Bowl.
Sexiness: Khloe Kardashian
There’s really not much to say about a post New Year’s Day match-up, between a pair of 6-6 teams, played on a Saturday afternoon other than to say this: It will take a truly dedicated college football fan to tune into this one.
Granted, I’m not saying there’s no sexiness at all here, but it will require a relatively acquired taste (or maybe the more appropriate term is “mental illness”?) to be excited for this one. Still, in the same way that the youngest Kardashian daughter eventually found a man to love her (hello Lamar Odom!), true fans of the sport will tune in, especially to see Ole Miss’ high-powered offense.
A Word From Our Sponsor: For those who care to know, BBVA Compass is a “leading US banking franchise with operations throughout the Sun Belt region,” according to the company’s website.
That fact alone is ironic, since I thought that BBVA Compass was, you know, just a company that actually made compasses and stuff. Who knew?
Maybe its best we just move on.
Aces: For Ole Miss, it all starts with one of college football’s most dynamic offenses, and one of the sport’s most underrated passers in Bo Wallace. While the Rebels numbers weren’t overwhelming statistically this season (the Rebels ranked just 47th nationally in passing in 2012), Wallace quietly had a fantastic second half of the year, finishing with more than 250 yards in five of his last seven games. Included, was a 294-yard, five touchdown performance against Mississippi State in the Rebels’ season finale.
Add in wide receiver Donte Moncrief (60 catches for 948 yards in 2012) and it’s safe to say that outside Louisville, Pittsburgh hasn’t faced an offense as dynamic as Ole Miss’s all season long.
Deuces: There’s no doubt that as this program progresses under Hugh Freeze, this defense will need some work. The Rebels allowed an average of 28.5 points per game this season.
Still, upon closer inspection this group wasn’t nearly as bad as most might think.
For one, most of the big point totals Ole Miss allowed came against some of college football’s best teams (Georgia, LSU and Texas all scored at least 37 points against the Rebels) and against everyone else the Rebels was actually pretty good. They were one of only four teams to hold Texas A&M to under 30 points (joining LSU, Alabama and Florida in that category) and were one of only four teams (along with A&M, LSU and Georgia) to hold Alabama under 35.
Yes this defense is still a work in progress. But with an extra month of practice, they could very well play better than most expect on Saturday.
Wild Card: If there is any one wild card for Ole Miss entering this game, it’s got to be Hugh Freeze himself. The Ole Miss head coach might not literally crazy, but he is certifiably quirky, and with a full seven weeks to prepare for this game you’ve got to assume that just about everything will be on the table on Saturday afternoon.
Aces: Like any tried and true successful rust belt team, it all starts with the run game and defense for Pitt. Most fans know plenty about Ray Graham, the senior back who went for over 1,000 yards this year, but what not nearly many know about is that Pitt’s defense was actually pretty darn good as well. The Panthers finished the regular season ranked No. 19 in the country in scoring defense in 2012, limiting opponents to just 19.7 points per game. More impressively, they gave up over 30 points just once (against Louisville) following Week 2 of the college football season.
Add in the evolution of Tino Sunseri at quarterback (he threw for over 3,000 yards, 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions this season) and it’s safe to say that while their record might not indicate it, Pittsburgh was actually pretty darn good under Paul Chryst this season.
Deuces: Looking at this objectively, there really isn’t any one thing that Pitt does poorly enough to truly be a cause for concern entering this game.
If anything though, the problem might be even bigger for the Panthers: Nobody played up and down to their competition quite like the Panthers did this season. To their credit, we all know how close Pitt came to upsetting Notre Dame in November, and they also beat Virginia Tech and Rutgers when each was ranked in the Top 25 nationally. Then again, that residual good karma was ruined with losses to 5-7 UConn and... umm, Youngstown State, which was undoubtedly one of the goofiest losses in all of college football this season.
Add that up, and it leads to...
Wild Card: Which is Pitt’s motivation heading into this one. It’s no secret that this club preferred to be anywhere other than Birmingham this holiday season (Ray Graham tweeted as much) and frankly, with all their bad memories from Legion Field it’s hard to blame them. This will be the Panthers’ third straight BBVA Compass Bowl, played under their third different coach.
What the Panthers’ mind-frame is coming into this one will be anyone’s guess.
Just So You Know: This is the only bowl match-up featuring two teams with first year head coaches. Honestly, I don’t know what that means. But it is interesting none the less.
Crystal Ball: We’ve referenced it about 2,200 times so far in this article, but it’s just hard to imagine the Pitt Panthers coming out in this one fired up and ready to go. We know it’s the last game for seniors like Graham and Sunseri, and we know that the last two years are no way to measure the current temperature of the team...but still. How excited would any club be to play in Birmingham, post New Year’s Day for a third year in a row?
As for Ole Miss, well, after going 2-10 last year, you’d have to think they’d be excited to play anywhere this bowl season. As a matter of fact, we know they’re excited: The Rebels sold over 21,000 tickets to this game through the school, and many more Ole Miss fans are expected to be amongst the expected crowd of 54,000 at Legion Field on Saturday.
With the home crowd and the excitement of their first bowl game since 2009, expect the Rebels to roll Saturday.
Score: Ole Miss 31, Pitt 21
For all his opinion, analysis and insight on college football, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.