The Mustangs come into the bowl with a 7-5 record after defeating Rice 27-24 in its season finale. SMU began the year 5-1 with its only loss to nationally ranked Texas A&M, but stumbled down the stretch. Head coach June Jones is in his fourth year with the program and has led the Mustangs to a 23-29 record during his tenure. This is the third consecutive bowl appearance for Jones and the Mustangs.
The Panthers won the 2011 Compass Bowl. Pittsburgh will be led by interim head coach Keith Patterson after Todd Graham resigned in early December to take the Arizona State job. Patterson served as the team's defensive coordinator as it finished 6-6. Patterson discussed in a press conference what he shared with the team upon learning he would be in charge for the bowl
"I told those young men that I am going to coach and prepare very hard for them and we're going to win. We're going to finish what we started!"
The Panthers gained bowl eligibility in their season finale with a 33-20 victory over Syracuse. Despite the .500 record, Pitt finished just one game out of a share of the Big East Title. The Panthers won three of their last five games, the two losses near the end were by a combined total of four points.
This will be the sixth meeting between the Panthers and Mustangs. The series has been dormant since 1983 when SMU defeated Pitt 7-3 in the Cotton Bowl en route to the 1982 NCAA-recognized National Championship. SMU's Cotton Bowl victory evened the series at 2-2-1. These teams both lost a standout tailback to a season ending injury during the course of the regular season.
With SMU's star running back Zach Line out with injury, freshman tailbacks Rishaad Wimbley and Jared Williams stepped in and led the Mustangs to victory in their season finale. Wimbley dashed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries while Williams rushed for 80 and a score one 11 carries. The rookie tandem should be able to provide a serviceable ground attack. J.J. McDermott was 33rd in the nation in total offense as he averaged 256.8 yards per game. The senior quarterback threw for 3,182 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions with a completion rate of 59.5 percent. McDermott struggled in the season finale as he completed 16-of-25 attempts for 175 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.
Coach Jones commented on his quarterback's performance .
"It's like all quarterbacks, when you don't play the way you want, you have to bite the bullet and get through to the next week. But he hangs in pretty good, and hopefully he'll be on his game this week. He works at it, and he's a tough guy."
McDermott does have the luxury of having two of the Conference USA's top receivers to pass to every game. Cole Beasley led the conference in receptions per game with 7.2 and accumulated 954 yards. Darius Johnson had five 100- receiving yard performances this year to rank third in the C-USA with 83 ypg. Both wideouts were First Team All Conference USA selections and helped the Mustangs to the 22nd best passing offense in the nation with 277.8 ypg.
SMU ranks 37th in the nation in total defense with 351.3 yards of total offense allowed per game. Opponents have averaged 24.5 ppg and the Mustangs allowed 24 or more points in its last six games. Junior linebacker Taylor Reed anchored the defense this season with a team-best 93 tackles.
The Panthers have averaged 362.2 yards of total offense and 25.8 points per game this season. Pitt's rushing attack took a hit when it lost their game-breaking tailback Ray Graham. Zach Brown and Isaac Bennett split most of the carries since his injury and will continue to do so against SMU.
Tino Sunseri did a good job down the stretch quarterbacking Pitt's offense. Sunseri threw for 1,229 yards and five touchdowns in his last five games. Pitt outscored its opponents 132-101 in those contests. Devin Street could play a big role in the outcome of this one. The sophomore wideout blossomed into a big time threat as the season progressed. Street had two 100-plus receiving yard games and was held to less than five catches only once in his last five outings.
The Panthers' defense has held its opponents to 354.8 yards of total offense and 22.4 points per game. Pitt held its last seven opponents under 400 yards of total offense. The Panthers are very aggressive defensively, as they are ninth in the nation with 7.58 tackles for loss per game and are tied for fourth in the nation with 3.25 sacks per game. Max Gruder is second in the Big East with 107 total tackles. Aaron Donald and Brandon Lindsey will give McDermott problems as they are both ranked in the top 20 in the country in sacks with 10 and 8.5, respectively.
Pitt is a more weathered team. All six of the Panthers' losses came to teams that made it to the bowl season. Four of those losses were by four points or less. The Mustangs really struggled down the stretch, but they did show they are capable with an upset of TCU earlier in the year.