Pittsburgh Vs. SMU, BBVA Compass Bowl 2012: All Hail The Sun Devil Bowl

LOUISVILLE, KY - NOVEMBER 12: Tino Sunseri #12 of the Pittsburgh Panthers runs with the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on November 12, 2011 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Sun Devil Bowl pits the team that almost lost its coach to Arizona State against the team that actually did. Pitt holds a decent advantage in this one, but focus and effort will go a long way in front of a sparse crowd at Legion Field.

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

Bowl games often pit teams with odd connections; for instance, in Jacksonville Ohio State and Florida played in the "Urban Meyer Bowl." After an odd month of coaching changes, Pittsburgh-SMU should, I guess, be billed the "Sun Devil Bowl" after SMU almost lost their head coach to Arizona State, and then Pitt did lose theirs. Arizona State's coaching search was a particularly odd one that saw ASU athletic director Lisa Love get overruled in her pursuit of SMU's June Jones (after it had leaked to Jones' current team that he had accepted the job). A while later, ASU settled on Graham, who shared with his now-former team the news via forwarded text message. It was a sloppy coaching search, and it could be a sloppy game today at sloppy historic Legion Field in Birmingham.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Pittsburgh 6-6 NR 35 56 26 19
SMU 7-5 NR 65 80 35 82
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Pittsburgh 28 96 119 61
SMU 114 2 68 2

Betting on this game? Good luck. The favorite (Pittsburgh) is working with an interim coach, while SMU was simply one of the most hot-or-cold teams in the country, playing well one week (typically against bad teams) and poorly the next (typically against good teams). The teams play at a completely different pace and fall on opposite ends of the Covariance, MACtion and Schizophrenia scales. Pitt should be able to win this game with relative ease, but I say that with the same level of confidence SMU recruits had in June Jones after seeing him connected to ASU.

When Pittsburgh Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Pittsburgh Offense 56 64 50 46 65 16 88
SMU Defense 35 35 72 32 31 40 26
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pittsburgh Offense 58.1% 55 27.5% 54
SMU Defense 56.8% 32 34.6% 28
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

When Paul Chryst takes over the Pitt football program, he will institute what will feel much more like a "Pittsburgh" offense. As Wisconsin's offensive coordinator, Chryst threw bowling ball running backs behind enormous offensive linemen, then threw to receivers on quite a few intermediate and deep routes downfield. That was most certainly not the Pittsburgh offense in 2011 under Todd Graham. The Panthers were a pass-first unit, utilizing as much quick passing as they could.

When running back Ray Graham went down with an injury in the eighth game of the season, the Panthers became even more reliant on the arm of Tino Sunseri to succeed. The problem: Sunseri couldn't stay upright. The Panthers allowed an incredible 56 sacks in 2011, nine more (or, to put it another way, almost one more per game) than anybody else in the country. (Miami-Ohio was second-worst at 46.) To say the least, this could be a problem against the SMU defense, which ranked 15th in the country in Adj. Sack Rate. End Taylor Thompson (7.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, six forced fumbles) and weakside linebacker Ja'Gared Davis (57.5 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, eight passes defended) are the two most frequent play-makers in SMU's active 3-4 defense, though four other Mustangs had at least two sacks and 19 others assisted in at least one tackle for loss.

SMU's success came in the pass defense. Corners Richard Crawford and Kenneth Acker (combined: three interceptions, 14 passes broken up) are each active, and with help from the pass rush, the Mustangs ranked 26th in Passing S&P+ and 28th in Passing Downs S&P+. The major question when Pitt has the ball, then, is how well the Panthers will be able to distract SMU with the run. SMU is weaker when the ball stays on the ground, and despite the loss of Graham, Pitt still grades out rather well when they choose to run. In Graham's absence, Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown (336 yards, plus-2.6 Adj. POE) and freshman Isaac Bennett (215 yards, plus-0.9 Adj. POE) carried the ball with decent success behind a strong, experienced line that ranked seventh in Adj. Line Yards.

When Pittsburgh attempt to throw -- or should I say, when Sunseri actually gets the pass off -- chances are it will be directed at either Devin Street (692 yards, 8.3 per target), Mike Shanahan (443 yards, 7.5 per target), a running back, or tight end Hubie Graham (307 yards, 8.5 per target).

When SMU Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
SMU Offense 80 52 88 62 55 27 75
Pittsburgh Defense 26 46 20 65 35 48 44
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
SMU Offense 43.5% 59 28.0% 75
Pittsburgh Defense 53.8% 63 27.2% 26
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

It is easy to make assumptions when it comes to June Jones. Fast pace, pass all the time, et cetera. To an extent, however, those assumptions are incorrect. The Mustangs played at one of the slowest paces in the country in 2011, and while theirs was absolutely a pass-first attack, in Zach Line they had one of the better big running backs in the country over the past two seasons. Through most of 10 games, Line had compiled 1,224 rushing yards and a lovely plus-24.8 Adj. POE, but he was lost for the season with a knee injury, leaving the Mustangs with two little used options in the backfield: Rishad Wimbley (155 yards, minus-0.1 Adj. POE) and Jared Williams (148 yards, minus-2.1 Adj. POE). SMU runs quite a bit on passing downs to take pressure off of quarterback J.J. McDermott, but on standard downs they are one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the country; that will certainly not change without Line in the backfield.

How SMU navigates on standard downs will be one of the keys to this game. Pitt's defense ranks 71st in Adj. Line Yards but 13th in Adj. Sack Rate, and with end Aaron Donald (15 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 11 hurries), rush end/OLB Brandon Lindsey (11 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, eight hurries) and nimble tackle Chas Alecxih (13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, five hurries) up front, the Panthers have been very good at pinning their ears back and attacking on passing downs. Token rushes by Wimbley and Williams will probably not stop that. But quick, early-down passing could be SMU's friend. McDermott (3,182 passing yards, 60-percent completion rate, 16 touchdowns, 16 interceptions) is a much quicker decision-maker than the man he replaced at the beginning of the season, Kyle Padron, and that has led to much better sack numbers (45th in Adj. Sack Rate) and fewer passing downs than the Mustangs encountered in 2010.

Heading into the season, big plays were a concern for SMU -- as in, they didn't produce enough of them. They have done a bit better than expected in this regard in 2011, and it is one of the primary reasons they still reached bowl eligibility despite a rough road schedule (they played at Texas A&M, TCU, Southern Miss, Tulsa and Houston). Each of McDermott's top four targets -- Darius Johnson (998 receiving yards, 8.6 per target), Cole Beasley (954, 8.7), Terrance Wilkerson (545, 7.7) and Der'rikk Thompson (394, 6.1) averaged at least 12.1 yards per catch, and three of the four combined that with catch rates of at least 60 percent. (At 45 percent, Thompson was a major straggler in that regard.) McDermott did have a problem with picks this fall, but that might not be a problem against a Pitt defense that picked off only eight passes all year. Corners Antwuan Reed and K'waun Williams did combine to break up 13 passes, so they are not entirely passive out wide, but the quick passing game might work nicely for the 'Stangs. If it doesn't, it probably goes without saying that SMU is in serious trouble.

The Verdict

Pittsburgh by 7.9.

In a world more stagnant, where coaching rumors and/or departures had not potentially impacted the chemistry and/or effort levels of these two teams, Pitt would have a strong overall advantage in this game, primarily because of their defense and a special teams advantage. But in front of what is expected to be a sparse crowd in Birmingham, with an interim coach on one sideline and a "thought he was leaving" coach on the other, odds are good that pure effort and focus will go a long way toward deciding this one. Pitt is still the safer bet, especially with SMU's propensity for playing poorly against good teams, but we'll see.

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

MACtion: This is a look at how closely teams are associated with big-play football (like those high-scoring, mid-week MAC games). Teams that rank high on the MACtion scale play games with a ton of both big plays (gained and allowed) and passing downs. For more, go here.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.