BBVA Compass Preview: Pitt vs. SMU

January, 6, 2012
1/06/12
1:00
PM ET
Pitt (6-6) and SMU (7-5) will play for the first time in 29 years when they meet at 1 p.m. Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. The Panthers and Mustangs last met on Jan. 1, 1983, in the Cotton Bowl. The SMU "Pony Express" backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James beat the Dan Marino-led Panthers 7-3.

The Panthers will try to give the Big East a 4-1 bowl record for the season.

WHO TO WATCH: Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri. It is hard to imagine any quarterback in the country taking as much criticism, and as many shots, as he has this season. He was sacked more than 50 times, and former coach Todd Graham essentially blamed him for not making his "high-octane" offense work. Through it all, Sunseri took the high road, kept his head up and kept playing. Say what you will about his football season -- he deserves credit for taking the hits while trying to remain a leader for this football team. Interim coach Keith Patterson said this week that the offense would slow down a bit to emphasize what Sunseri does best, which is running the football. Zach Brown (bruised sternum) is most likely out, so the load will fall once again to freshman Isaac Bennett.

WHAT TO WATCH: Pittsburgh defense against SMU offense. The Mustangs have the potential to put up points in a hurry, but the key is being able to limit the passing game. More emphasis will be placed on that with leading rusher Zach Line out for this game. This is really all you need to know about what SMU does when it scores: The Mustangs are 7-0 this season when scoring first and 7-0 when scoring at least 21 points. Slowing down receiver Darius Johnson will be the biggest key. Johnson has five 100-yard games this season, and three with 10 or more catches.

WHY TO WATCH: This could have been a future Big East game, but alas, Pitt is headed to the ACC when SMU joins with the Big East. Either way, June Jones has done a remarkable job in turning around the Mustangs, though they probably fell a little short of expectations this season. SMU is playing in its third straight bowl game -- tying a school record. When his offenses are on, they are fun to watch.

PREDICTION: Pitt 28, SMU 17. From my predictions post a few weeks ago: Pitt has to do what has worked best this season -- establish the run and let Sunseri manage the game. The defense has been much improved in the second half of the season, and SMU has struggled to put up points of late. The Mustangs also will be without leading rusher Line, who played a big role in the offense. If the Panthers can continue to get after the quarterback and play well in the secondary, they should be able to win this game.

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