SMU Mustangs (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh Panthers (6-6)
Jan. 7, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
SMU take from college football blogger Matt Fortuna: Following a Conference USA West division title, the Mustangs opened this season with a 5-1 record, including an overtime win at TCU. In the season's second half, however, things turned south. SMU lost four of its last six games and two of its final three to finish 7-5. A lot of that falls on the offense, which averaged 33.7 points per game through the season's first half before scoring just 17.7 points per game in its final six games.
Quarterback J.J. McDermott replaced Kyle Padron in a season-opening 46-14 loss at Texas A&M and has started every game since, throwing for 3,182 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Running back Zach Line eclipsed the 100-yard mark in eight of SMU's first 10 games and led the conference in rushing, but he is out for the remainder of the season with a foot injury. Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson have emerged at receiver, with each just shy of the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Defensively, linebackers Taylor Reed (93 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, three sacks) and Ja'Gared Davis (11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions) lead the way for a Mustangs unit that ranks 37th nationally in total defense.
Quarterback Tino Sunseri never bought in or adapted to the changes, and that contributed to Pitt giving up 56 sacks this season. Injuries on the offensive line didn’t help, either, as Pitt used myriad different starting lineups to help fill in the gaps. The line wasn’t the only area that was impacted by injuries. The Panthers lost star tailback Ray Graham to a torn ACL against UConn in October and from that point on, it was an even bigger struggle for the offense to do anything with Sunseri behind center.
Pitt needed a 33-20 win over Syracuse in the final game of the season to become bowl eligible, but at least salvaged the season. What the Panthers do have is a much improved defense from Week 1. Defensive end Aaron Donald was a breakout star, with 10 sacks. The pass defense made a huge turnaround. After giving up more than 300 yards in two of the first three games of the season, the most they gave up in the final nine weeks was 271 yards to Rutgers.