If Ole Miss players need a tour guide around Birmingham, they could ask their opponents.
Making their third consecutive trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl, Pittsburgh players should know the hot spots around town by now. While Ole Miss may be happy to play in a bowl anywhere, the Panthers are happy to make a bowl trip with a full-time coach in tow.
The Panthers’ last two trips to Birmingham -- a loss to SMU last season and a win over Kentucky two seasons ago -- have been with interim coaches. But Paul Chryst, despite a coaching change at his previous employer Wisconsin, appears to be staying with Pitt, which had become a weigh station for head coaches since since firing Dave Wannstedt in 2010.
A year removed from a coaching change itself, Ole Miss was one of the most improved teams in the SEC under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. The Rebels won as many games last (six) as they did last two seasons under Houston Nutt combined.
BBVA Compass Bowl - Pittsburgh (6-6) vs. Ole Miss (6-6)
Date and time: Jan. 5, 1 p.m. Eastern
Location: Birmingham, Ala.
When Pittsburgh has the ball:
Pitt is at its best when it can control the ground game, which shouldn’t be a shock with a former Wisconsin offensive coordinator running the show. Ray Graham, who missed the second half of 2011 with a torn ACL, didn’t look fully confident on his knee until late in the season. Graham averaged 139.2 yards from scrimmage per game and 4.9 yards per carry over his final five games. He’s spelled by Rushel Shell, who was a touted recruit out of Aliquippa, Pa. At quarterback, Tino Sunseri had been a liability, but he quietly had a career year s a senior. He threw 19 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, none after Sept. 15.
The Rebels defense is led by freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, Ole Miss’ only All-SEC selection. Nkemdiche finished with 12 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles and three interceptions. Ole Miss installed a defense run primarily out of the 4-2-5, enabling the Rebels to finish second in the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss.
When Ole Miss has the ball:
The Rebels are still working out the details in Hugh Freeze’s spread offense, but finishing in the top half of the SEC in scoring and total yards was a major leap forward. The offense finished with a flurry after a 37-10 loss to Georgia on Nov. 3. The Rebels rolled up at least 450 yards on the final three opponents, including 527 against Mississippi State. Quarterback Bo Wallace was able to move the ball against Vanderbilt, LSU and the Bulldogs, but he was still prone to turnovers (five interceptions in the last two games). Donte Moncrief is a reliable primary target with 13 receptions for 234 yards and five touchdowns in the final two games.
The main challenge for the Ole Miss offense will be to contain Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who had 18.5 tackles for a loss this season and nine in his last three games. Despite a solid run game led by Jeff Scott, Randall Mackey and the mobility of Wallace, teams were able to stop the Rebels behind the line of scrimmage with regularity.
Who knows which Pittsburgh team will show up? The Panthers outscored Rutgers and USF 54-9 in the final two games of the season, but that came on the heels of a loss to Connecticut, which came after an overtime loss with No. 1 Notre Dame. On the one hand, Pitt could be disappointed to play in the same bowl for the third consecutive year. But on the other, Pitt finally has a stable coaching situation. Still, Ole Miss is playing in its own region of the country and should be boosted by a rare bowl game appearance, even if it’s after New Year’s Day. The Rebels may have the best passing game Pittsburgh has seen since a 45-35 loss to Louisville on Oct. 13.
Prediction: Ole Miss 28, Pittsburgh 23
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