BBVA Compass Bowl Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Ole Miss Rebels

Pitt Running Back Ray Graham Holds the Key for a Panthers Victory

Pitt Running Back Ray Graham Holds the Key for a Panthers Victory Against Ole Miss

After one of the streakiest seasons in recent memory, Pittsburgh attempts to end their string of two losses followed by two wins, as they come up against Ole Miss. This is Pitt’s third consecutive postseason trip to Birmingham, and each time, they’re less thrilled to get an invite. Mississippi, on the other hand, is thrilled to be back in the postseason after two consecutive down seasons, and their fans promise to show up in droves.

Bowl Game: BBVA Compass Bowl

Location: Birmingham, Ala.

First Year: 2006 (PapaJohns.com Bowl)

2012 Participants: Pittsburgh Panthers (6-6) vs. Ole Miss Rebels (6-6)

Last Meeting: None

***

Pittsburgh (previous bowl game: 28-6 loss vs. SMU in 2012 BBVA Compass Bowl)

Pitt’s season, as alluded to above, was as frustrating as it gets, alternating embarrassing losses with triumphant wins. So which Panthers team will we see in this game? According to the pre-established pattern, they’re looking at a loss, but it’s hard to ignore just how impressive they were in their last two wins. Faced with must-win situations in both games, Pitt outscored their opposition by a combined score of 54-9, holding them to 324 total yards while forcing five turnovers (four against USF). In their victories, not one game came down to one possession. In the Panthers’ losses, they saw defeat by a touchdown or less three separate times. And while Pitt’s defense was not among the country’s most talked about by any measure, it’s hard to understand why that’s the case. Only four opponents scored more than 20 points against them, and they ranked 17th in total defense. The issue, all season, has been the team’s spotty offense — boosted up by two games in which they scored over 45 points. In Pitt’s other 10 games, they scored 20 points or less half the time, and struggled to establish a running game; their Achilles’ heel. So long as running back Ray Graham ran the ball well, the team mostly found success. However, when relying solely on quarterback Tino Sunseri (who was stll vastly improved this season), they could not generate enough consistency to pull through.

Ole Miss (previous bowl game: 21-7 win vs. Oklahoma State in 2010 AT&T Cotton Bowl)

Make no mistake, Mississippi is not immensely improved in comparison to the 4-8 and 2-10 teams that came before this group. They beat just one team this season with a winning record (Mississippi State), and their six losses came by a combined 91 points. Yet, this was still a team that scored nearly 31 points per game and racked up over 426 yards of offense per game. The passing offense, led by sophomore QB Bo Wallace, was dynamic, though also mistake-prone. The Rebels, while forcing 26 turnovers on defense, also turned the ball over 27 times themselves — not the best news against a Pitt team that had a +12 turnover margin on the year. If Ole Miss hopes to come away with this game against Pittsburgh, it comes down to the usual cliches: take care of the football, control the tempo, make the Panthers try to beat them with the pass. Mississippi’s 14 picks were tied for 34th in the FBS, and they’ll surely try to force Sunseri into some errors if given the chance.

Verdict

The intangible that may end up deciding this one is the Rebels’ virtual home-field advantage. Ole Miss has bought up their entire ticket allotment and then some, and their fans will make up over 80 percent of the 54,000-plus in attendance on Saturday. But at the same time, those fans don’t catch passes or make tackles. And in that regard, Pitt’s proven itself a far superior team over the course of the year. However, it really does come down to the running game, as stressed earlier. If Graham can get his 20 carries or so, and take pressure off Sunseri, they stand a pretty decent shot at a victory. If not, and Wallace and the Ole Miss offense control the tempo, it could be a long day for the Panthers. Expect them to rise to the occasion, however. Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Ole Miss 23

Predictions Update: Bowl Season (6-1); Overall Season (90-34)

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