5 Players To Watch
Aaron Donald (DT, Pittsburgh, Jr.). Pitt's run defense is ... not great. The Panthers rank 79th in Rushing S&P+, but what they lack in down-for-down proficiency, they make up for with big-play ability. Donald, a 275-pound junior, is ultra-quick and gets into the backfield with ease (which isn't always a good thing against the run). He logged 18.5 tackles for loss in 2012, along with 5.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries. He is a solid playmaker for a line full of all-or-nothing guys: tackle Tyrone Ezell and ends Shayne Hale and Devin Cook have combined for only 54.5 tackles but 22.5 tackles for loss.
Donte Moncrief (WR, Ole Miss, So.) and Bo Wallace (QB, Ole Miss, So.). Moncrief was pretty good as a freshman in 2011, and he was great in 2012. The sophomore gives Bo Wallace, also a sophomore, a target both steady (65 percent catch rate) and explosive (15.8 yards per catch). He and Vince Sanders (13.7 per catch, and yes, he is also a sophomore) supply the big plays while Ja-Mes Logan, Korvic Neat and Randal Mackey (combined: 74 percent catch rate) move the chains. This is a strong, underrated passing attack, one which ranks 11th in Passing S&P+. Pass defense is Pitt's (relative) strength, but the Panthers will have their hands full against a unit with both depth and a big-time No. 1 guy. And if the Panthers can account for all of the options in the Ole Miss passing game, odds are good that running back Jeff Scott will make them pay for it. This is a fun, young offense, one that should be a lot more fun in 2013 with the way Ole Miss has been recruiting of late.
Denzel Nkemdiche (OLB, Ole Miss, RSFr.). Primarily known at the start of the year for being the older brother of the No. 1 recruit in the country for 2013, Nkemdiche has actually made a name for himself in 2012. The 200-pounder plays the "Stinger" role in Ole Miss' defense, basically a safety-OLB hybrid, and he has proven capable of making plays all over the field. Nkemdiche leads the Rebels in tackles for loss (12.0) and forced fumbles (four), is second in sacks (3.0) and is third in pass defensed (seven). If the Rebels are making a big play on defense, chances are good that Nkemdiche is near the ball.
Tino Sunseri (QB, Pittsburgh, Sr.). The statuesque Sunseri (I mean that literally: he is like a statue in the pocket) has proven through the years that he can make a lot of plays as long as he gets protection. He is patient, often to a fault (he was sacked 34 times this year, which is actually a vast improvement over last season), but when he gets the pass off, it is accurate and without error. Sunseri completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,103 yards, 19 touchdowns and just two interceptions in 2012, and he has two go-to guys at his disposal: senior Mike Shanahan (926 yards, 11.3 per target, 71 percent catch rate) and junior Devin Street (892, 9.8, 73 percent). The Panthers have been through a lot over time -- this is their third offense to learn in three years under three head coaches -- but after some growing pains in September, the personnel took to this offense pretty well, with Sunseri passing to Shanahan and Street and running backs Ray Graham (senior) and Rushel Shell (freshman) combining for 1,604 rushing yards, 443 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns.
4 Reasons To Watch
1. Because we've only got three games left in the season. Sigh.
2. Because Ole Miss is next. Hugh Freeze is putting together a potentially ferocious recruiting class, and a lot of his best current players -- Moncrief, Nkemdiche, Wallace, Sanders, defensive tackle Isaac Gross, running back Jaylen Walton, nickel back Mike Hilton, corner Senquez Golden -- are sophomores or younger. Houston Nutt did not exactly leave the cupboard bare for Freeze, and now Freeze is off adding some luxurious ingredients for next year. Get to know the Rebels now; you're going to be hearing a lot about them next fall.
3. Because Pitt is better than you think. For the most part, we stopped paying attention when the Panthers lost by 14 to Youngstown State on September 1. But following a 24-point loss to Cincinnati the next week, Pitt began an impressive turnaround. There were still setbacks (a 24-17 loss at UConn, to name one), but post-September Pitt was decent and post-October Pitt was actually rather strong; the Panthers almost beat Notre Dame on November 3, whipped Rutgers on November 24 and whipped South Florida on December 1. The Panthers haven't allowed more than 24 points in regulation since an October 13 loss to Louisville, and the offense has been steadily decent as well.
4. Bonus football. Bonus football!
3 Key Factors
1. Pitt vs. Birmingham. This is Pitt's third straight trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl. Once they had clinched bowl eligibility in 2012, the Panthers began almost openly campaigning for any bowl bid besides this one. Meanwhile, Ole Miss fans have been snatching up every available ticket. On a true neutral field, with a motivated Pitt team, I would actually pick Pitt to win this game. But the Panthers might be fighting motivation, and they will be playing against a Rebels team basically playing at home. That's tough.
2. Passing downs and rabbit in hats. Both of these offenses are flawed, but both have pulled off some passing downs magic acts through the season. Ole Miss ranks 39th on standard downs, Pitt 41st; but the Rebels rank 13th on passing downs, the Panthers 14th. Whoever is getting the most out of second- or third-and-long and sustaining drives will likely win.
3. Ole Miss vs. field position. According to F/+, both of these teams have Top 40 offenses and Top 50 defenses; the one area where Ole Miss has struggled the most, however, is in the field position battle. The Rebels aren't particularly good in the kick/punts or return games (they aren't particularly bad, either), and when their offense fails, it usually fails quickly. If Pitt can leverage the field in its favor, it might be able to keep an otherwise boisterous Ole Miss crowd out of the game.
F/+ Pick: Pitt by 7.8. Again, the Panthers have been a lot better than you think for much of the season.
Bill's Pick: Ole Miss by 10. Motivation and the crowd will be in the Rebels' favor.