by Rob Doster
BBVA Compass Bowl
SMU (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)
Date: Jan. 7 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
The Panthers, who played in the Compass Bowl following the 2010 season as well, make the return trip to Birmingham to face June Jones' pass-oriented Mustangs. Pitt was a few breaks away from a 10-win season but instead is coming off a roller coaster ride that saw the Panthers fail to post back-to-back wins after Week 2 and included heartbreaking losses to Iowa and Notre Dame in nonconference action and Cincinnati and West Virginia in Big East play. And now, they're arriving without a head coach, as Todd Graham took the job at Arizona State (a message he relayed to his team via text). Nevertheless, the only season of the Graham era did produce some highlights, including a 21–14 win over Big East co-champ Louisville and a season-ending 33–20 win over Syracuse that clinched bowl eligibility.
The Mustangs are bowling for the third consecutive season, but they limp into Birmingham having lost four of six, three of them by significant margins. In particular, SMU struggled against C-USA's upper echelon, losing to Southern Miss, Houston and Tulsa by an average score of 34–6. The Mustangs did post a signature win — a 40–33 overtime victory over TCU — so it would be foolish to discount their chances.
WHEN PITTSBURGH HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Tino Sunseri regressed a bit during his junior season, as his TD-to-interception ratio fell from 16-9 to 10-10. The Panthers suffered a devastating loss with a knee injury to running back Ray Graham in a win over Connecticut, putting extra pressure on Sunseri and the passing game; Graham had rushed for 964 yards in eight games, an average of 120.5 yards per game. The Mustangs boast a more-than-respectable defense, although they had trouble producing turnovers, with only five interceptions all season.
WHEN SMU HAS THE BALL:
The key for the Mustangs: Protect the football. Jones' crew ranked dead last in the nation in turnover margin (-1.42) thanks to 31 giveaways, including an alarming 19 interceptions. The Mustangs live and die on the arm of quarterback J.J. McDermott, who had four 300-yard outings, including a 349-yard, four-touchdown masterpiece against TCU. McDermott also had four games with multiple interceptions, and the Mustangs were 1–3 in those games. Pitt was vulnerable against the pass, ranking 71st in the nation at 233.3 ypg, so expect the Mustangs to throw early and often.
Not much to see here. Neither team has an especially reliable kicker, nor does either cause much heartburn in the return game. SMU's Richard Crawford does rank ninth nationally in punt return average (12.67) but he did most of his damage with a 141-yard performance against UCF.
Both teams could use a boost of momentum heading into the offseason, but Todd Graham's messy departure has left a cloud over the Pittsburgh program. Expect the Mustangs to muster enough offense to outscore the Panthers.
SMU 28, Pittsburgh 24