Two teams with more than 60 combined bowl appearances will square off in the BBVA Compass Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, as the Pittsburgh Panthers collide with the Ole Miss Rebels.
This is the fifth straight and 29th overall season to end in a bowl game for Pittsburgh. In fact it is the third straight season the Panthers will take part in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Last season the Panthers took a 28-6 loss from SMU to move their all-time bowl record to 12-16. It wasn't an easy road for Pittsburgh to get here as the Panthers opened the season with consecutive losses, including an embarrassing 31-17 defeat to FCS foe Youngstown State. Pittsburgh bounced back with a pair of wins from there but then went 2-4 over its next six games, making each of its final two games must-wins. Pittsburgh answered the call and posted routs of Rutgers (27-6) and South Florida (27-3) to punch its ticket to the postseason.
In just his first season at the helm for Ole Miss, head coach Hugh Freeze ended a two-year bowl absence. However the Rebels nearly let their postseason chances slip away in the final weeks losing three straight games before a 41-14 route of instate rival Mississippi State in the final game of the regular season. With that win Ole Miss secured a 6-6 overall record.
This is the 34th bowl appearance for Ole Miss but the first since 2009 and only the third in the last eight years. When the Rebels have managed to get into the postseason they have done extremely well with a record of 21-12, including victories in four straight and eight of their last nine. The most recent victory was a 21-7 triumph over Oklahoma in the 2010 Cotton Bowl.
"This accomplishment is a credit to our team's hard work and dedication, and we are very appreciative of the opportunity," Freeze said. "We have one of the richest bowl traditions in college football, and I'm proud of our staff for returning this program to the postseason in our first season."
Pittsburgh is 12-2-2 all-time against current members of the Southeastern Conference but has never paired up with Ole Miss.
The Panthers have a reputation of being a team that relies heavily on running the ball. That has not been the case in head coach Paul Chryst's first season manning the sidelines. The Panthers are the third-most prolific passing team in the Big East (263.0 ypg) while having nearly twice as many passing yards (3,156) as rushing (1,649). The aerial assault has led the Panthers to a healthy 27.3 points per game scoring average which ranks right in the middle of the conference.
Tino Sunseri is the man under center powering the Panthers' improved passing attack. Sunseri has enjoyed the best season of his career under Chryst as he has thrown for career highs in yards (3,103), touchdowns (19) and completion percentage (66.5). Even more importantly, Sunseri seems to have kicked the turnover struggles he had in the previous two seasons when he was intercepted 20 times with only two this year. Thanks in part to Sunseri's ball control the Panthers led the Big East in turnover differential (+12). That mark also tied for the 14th best in the nation.
"It's a new system, but he understands the importance of taking care of the football," Chryst said. "That comes with experience. It comes from being burned on it and he's grown up with it."
Sunseri has a pair of talented receivers hauling in his passes. Both Mike Shanahan and Devin Street were named Second-Team All-Big East performers as the pair rank second and third respectively in the conference in receiving yards. Shanahan (58 receptions, 926 yards, 5 TDs) leads in yards while Street (66 receptions, 892 yards, 4 TDs) has brought in the second-most catches in the conference and most on the team.
Even though the Panthers haven't relied so much on the rushing game doesn't mean there isn't talent in the backfield. All-Big East First-Team running back Ray Graham has shown a ton of versatility and has been very productive. Graham has rushed for 1,042 yards and 11 touchdowns, while also ranking third on the team in receptions (36) and receiving yards (340). Rushel Shell (562 yards, 4 TDs) has served as a more than competent backup. Both Graham and Shell have been helped by consistency on the offensive line as four of five opening day starters have remained there for every game this year.
Pittsburgh also had a First-Team All-Big East selection on the defensive side of the ball in defensive linemen Aaron Donald. Donald led the Big East in tackles for loss (18.5) and also posted solid totals in tackles (63) and sacks (5.5). Jason Hendricks captured All-Big East Second-Team honors by leading the squad in tackles (73), while collecting five interceptions.
Outside of Donald there isn't much of a pass rush for Pittsburgh which ranks second to last in the Big East in sacks (23). The Panthers have also struggled to get opposing offenses off the field quickly by allowing teams to convert on a Big East worst 44.7 percent of their attempts on third down. Still, Pittsburgh has been a solid defensive unit allowing only 325.8 yards of total offense and 19.7 points per game. Both of those marks rank among the 25 best in the country.
The Rebels might be in some trouble on offense with quarterback Bo Wallace's health in doubt. He is currently listed as questionable for the game with a shoulder injury. Wallace was the starter in all 12 games this season and threw for 2,843 yards and 19 touchdowns while completing 63.4 percent of his pass attempts. Unlike Sunseri, Wallace was a little more loose with the ball as he was picked off 15 times. It's not just his throwing that will be missed though as Wallace was second on the team in rushing yards (363) and the leader in rushing touchdowns (eight). If he can't go, Barry Brunetti will likely get the start.
No matter who is under center for the Rebels, the main target will be Donte Moncrief. Moncrief has racked up 60 receptions for 948 yards and 10 touchdowns which are all by far the best marks on the team. Moncrief is the fifth most productive receiver in the SEC and his 10 touchdown receptions have already tied a school record. Ja-Mes Logan has the second most receptions (37, 454 yards), while Vince Sanders ranks second in yards (465) and touchdowns (three).
Jeff Scott is the top ball carrier. Scott rushed for 828 yards on 191 carries and punched it into the end zone six times. He has averaged just 75.3 yards per game but when given the chance can be productive as he picks up 4.3 yards a carry. Versatile athlete Randall Mackey (334 yards, 4 TDs) can run the ball and has also thrown six passes, including a 32-yard touchdown.
Overall the Rebels were a mediocre offensive team in comparison to the rest of the SEC. The Rebels ranked sixth in scoring (30.9 ppg) and fifth in total offense (426.8 ppg). Where Ole Miss has really excelled is in the red zone, as the Rebels score on an SEC-leading 90.2 percent of their possessions from within 20 yards.
In a conference known for defense the Rebels are nothing special on that side of the ball. Ole Miss let up 385.0 yards of total offense and 28.5 points per game. Creating negative plays has been a strength however, with the Rebels second in the conference in both sacks (34) and tackles for loss (92). Both of those marks rank among the 20 best nationally.
A pair of freshmen have been the key playmakers for Ole Miss this season. Issac Gross and Denzel Nkemdiche each earned Freshman All-SEC honors. Nkemdiche was also was named an All-SEC Second-Team performer. Nkemdiche racked up 78 tacklers, including 12.0 for loss, which is the top mark on the team, while also collecting three interceptions. Gross (38 tackles, 9.0 TFLs) also makes plays in the backfield, while C.J. Johnson (6.5 sacks) is the lead pass rusher.