In a battle of two disappointing teams, the Pittsburgh Panthers take on the SMU Mustangs in the BBVA Compass Bowl. As is usually the case with a few of the lower-tier bowls, this one is oddly positioned amidst the BCS games and grabs very little attention in the lead-up to the National Championship Game. Still, the matchup of (soon to be) former and future Big East squads promises to be entertaining as both look to end tumultuous years on a high note.
Bowl Game: BBVA Compass Bowl
Location: Birmingham, Ala.
First Year: 2006 (as PapaJohns.com Bowl)
2012 Participants: Pittsburgh Panthers (6-6) vs. Southern Methodist Mustangs (7-5)
Last Meeting: 1983, a 7-3 Cotton Bowl win by SMU
Pittsburgh (previous bowl game: 27-10 win over Kentucky in 2011 BBVA Compass Bowl)
Following the sudden departure of head coach Todd Graham, the Pitt program appears to be in disarray. Failing to live up to the hype of an uptempo, spread offense, the Panthers managed to put up just 25.8 points per game — staying competitive by way of their defense. Though not overly spectacular, Aaron Donald and the front four allowed just 22 points per game, which was enough for their late rally to bowl eligibility. That group will not face the stiffest test in SMU’s offense, but Pitt’s own offense, without the benefit of injured star running back Ray Graham will likely struggle to establish any consistency. The keys to success will likely be the defense forcing turnovers, and the play of quarterback Tino Sunseri. When Sunseri played well down the stretch, the team’s results were directly related. Otherwise, fans can reference their three losses over their final six games.
Amid the excitement of heading to a BCS league, and beating rival TCU, SMU stuttered down the stretch to a 7-5 finish, and third place in Conference USA‘s West division. Opening up with five wins in their first six games, the Mustangs were reminding fans of the Pony Express Southwest Conference days by racking up points and actually playing some great defense. Once the wheels came off though, they fell back down to earth rather hard. The passing game, while ranked 23rd in the FBS, is prone to turnovers behind quarterback J.J. McDermott. Their defense was also unspectacular, with teams scoring around 30 points per game over the final six. Their strength, as it ends up, was the rushing game — at least until stellar starter Zach Line was forced to hang’em up this year due to injury. Without that element of the offense, they stand little chance.
Neither defense is anything to truly write home about, and both offenses have left much to be desired in the second half of their respective seasons. While Sunseri has never been overly impressive for Pitt, he has done what McDermott’s failed to over at SMU — put his team in a position to win late in the season. In spite of the Mustangs being the ones playing with a familiar face on the sidelines (June Jones), Pitt will ride its front four and the motivation to prove to Todd Graham wrong to a close, but still meaningful victory. Prediction: Pitt 23, SMU 21