Pittsburgh Panthers (6-6) vs. Ole Miss Rebels (6-6)
Jan. 5, 1 p.m. ET, Birmingham, Ala. (ESPN)
Pittsburgh take from Big East blogger Matt Fortuna: The Paul Chryst era began with a 14-point home loss to FCS team Youngstown State. Five days later, it continued with a 24-point loss at rival Cincinnati.
But Pitt won its next two games, setting the stage for a season that consisted only of two-game losing and winning streaks, culminating with a home rout of Rutgers and a 27-3 win at South Florida that lifted the team to a 6-6 record and extended its season into bowl play.
A big reason for the turnaround has been fifth-year quarterback Tino Sunseri, who was a scapegoat last season under Todd Graham but has been much more efficient in Chryst's pro-style attack. None of Sunseri's final 270 pass attempts were intercepted, giving him the nation's longest active streak without getting picked off. He has 19 touchdown tosses and just two picks on the season, to go with a 66.5 completion percentage and 3,103 yards. Sunseri has been aided by the resiliency of senior Ray Graham, who overcame a right ACL tear midway through last season to notch his first career 1,000-yard rushing season.
Defensively, the Panthers boast the nation's No. 16 overall unit, surrendering just 325.83 yards per game. They held South Florida to a program-low 115 total yards of offense in their regular-season finale.
This is a team that has consistently played up or down to its competition, routing Virginia Tech for its first win of the season and coming within a missed field goal of knocking off No. 1 Notre Dame after blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in South Bend, Ind.
Ole Miss take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: What a start for first-year coach Hugh Freeze. After taking over a program that had a wealth of attitude and personnel issues, Freeze guided the Rebels to a bowl game for the first time since 2009 and watched his team win three SEC games after entering the season on a 14-game conference losing streak.
Ole Miss’ six wins matched the total number of wins the Rebels had in the final two years of Houston Nutt’s tenure.
The Rebels matched last year’s win total after their 2-0 start. What made the Rebels such a tough opponent for most of the year was how explosive the offense was. Behind playmakers Bo Wallace, Jeff Scott and Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss rushed for close to 170 yards a game and threw for 257 a contest.
Feeding Moncrief became the norm, as he was fifth in the SEC with 948 receiving yards and had 10 touchdowns.
The defense showed improvement from last year, but did have its issues. Texas piled on 66 points in Oxford and the Rebels surrendered 30 or more points in four SEC games (all losses).
Ole Miss also had its share of second-half failures in SEC games, but rebounded at the best time with a 41-24 win over archrival Mississippi State to capture the Egg Bowl for the first time since 2008. After being outscored 68-21 in the second halves of three straight losses leading up to the Mississippi State game, Ole Miss outscored the Bulldogs 24-7 in the final two quarters in order to become bowl eligible.