SEC BOWL PREVIEW: BBVA Compass Bowl
Winning season on the line for Ole Miss and Pitt at Legion Field
By RICHARD FISCHER
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
This is part eight of a nine-part series that will preview the bowl matchups for all the SEC teams in action. Check back to TigerRag.com Saturday for the conclusion of this series getting you set for the BCS Championship Game between Alabama and Notre Dame. Up today is Ole Miss versus Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
BBVA Compass Bowl
Ole Miss vs. Pitt
Birmingham, Ala. - Legion Field
Jan. 5, 1 p.m. (ET) - ESPN
How they got here
After 2011 was one of the worst showings in recent SEC memory, the 2012 Rebels under first-year coach Hugh Freeze took a huge step back toward respectability. They finished 6-6 with a second-half destruction of rival Mississippi State in the season’s final Saturday. But maybe equally as important, they hung tough versus good opponents and didn’t quit like they did a year ago. A three-point loss to A&M, a one-point loss to Vandy and a six-point loss to LSU - all games the Rebels could have won - was a far cry from last season’s 25-point margin of defeat in eight SEC games. I don’t know how much higher the Rebels can climb in the stacked SEC West, but they weren’t the disgrace they were in 2011. Even that should be celebrated on some level.
Speaking of overcoming embarrassment, Pitt was able to do it over the course of the same season and get to 6-6. The Panthers began the year with a 14-point loss to FCS Youngstown State then got blown off the field by Cincinnati in the conference opener. But they didn’t get discouraged and kept getting better every week. The Panthers finished the year winning four of their last six games with all four wins coming in blow out fashion (three in league play) and one of the two losses was a heartbreaker in South Bend that should have changed the course of the national title picture. Pitt’s marquee win came Nov. 24 in a 27-6 drubbing of No. 18 Rutgers. The Panthers destroyed Virginia Tech earlier in the season for their first win, but that victory doesn’t look nearly as impressive now.
Ole Miss offense versus Pitt defense
After averaging a pitiful 16 points per game in 2011, Ole Miss jumped that number up to 31 per contest this season. There are a myriad of reasons for that improvement, but the biggest one is the emergence of QB Bo Wallace. Sure he’s had ball security issues, but he’s also made this offense go with 27 total touchdowns. His favorite target Donte’ Moncrief will get plenty of accolades entering next season with 60 catches for 948 yards and 10 scores in his sophomore campaign. High risk, high reward from this unit.
Pitt’s defense has been good for the most part in 2012. The Panthers give up less than 20 points per game, and they’ve given up a total of nine in their past two contests versus Rutgers and South Florida. However, I must factor in Pitt’s tremendously weak schedule in 2012.
I think Ole Miss makes several big plays throughout the contest but also makes several mistakes so it’s gonna be feast or famine. I’ll lean toward those mistakes carrying just a little more weight than the big plays and slightly give the edge to the Pitt defense.
Advantage: Pitt (slight)
Pitt offense versus Ole Miss defense
Pitt’s offense doesn’t jump out at you, but it’s been painfully consistent in 2012. The Panthers have turned the ball over a national-best eight times on the year. That includes only two interceptions from quarterback Tino Sinseri. He’s thrown 19 scores and completed better than two-thirds of his passes. On the ground, Ray Graham is one of the more underrated backs in America with 1,042 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. And don’t forget about Mike Shanahan at TE who will soon join his father in the NFL.
Ole Miss ranks near the bottom of the SEC with 28.5 points allowed per game, but they can force negative plays with 26 takeaways, 34 sacks and 92 tackles for loss through 12 games.
Both units have improved as the year has gone on, so I think this matchup comes down to who wins the turnover battle. If Pitt protects the ball as it usually does, it’ll be fine offensively. If Ole Miss forces a couple mistakes as it usually does, it’ll be fine defensively. Ole Miss’ propensity of tackles for loss and sacks and Pitt’s lackluster pass protection makes me lean toward Ole Miss, but it’s very close.
Advantage: Ole Miss (slight)
This is going to be one of the more underrated bowls of bowl season - two squads from BCS conferences in a minor bowl that actually want to be there. Both seeming had no chance of making a bowl not that long ago, and at 6-6 each they’ll be battling for a winning record.
The contrasting styles will make it fun to watch too. Ole Miss is aggressive and care-free with the ball versus a defense that’s below average at takeaways, and Pitt is consistent and safe offensively versus an opportunistic and play-making defense.
This is Pitt’s third consecutive trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl. The Panthers blew out Kentucky two years ago and got blown out by SMU last year. I think their third trip will finally be a close game, but I slightly favor Ole Miss to take the victory home. Expect a large Rebel contingent. Both teams will really want this game to cap off redeeming seasons and to build momentum into next year, and this one will represent what bowl season should be all about.
Ole Miss 21