NCF Nation: 2011 compass bowl preview

With all the coaching turmoil surrounding Pittsburgh this past month, it could be easy to forget the Panthers still have a game to play. They'll kick it off in one of the last bowl games of the season Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., vs. Kentucky. A Pitt victory would give the Big East a winning record in the postseason, as the league is currently 3-2. Here's a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Pittsburgh wide receiver Jon Baldwin. It's all but assuredly the junior's final college game before he goes to the NFL, and Pitt's offense usually only excels when he's fully involved in the game. Kentucky is not a great defensive team but does have a decent secondary, as the Wildcats finished No. 20 in pass defense this season. It will also be interesting to see how Baldwin is used after he publicly complained about his role in the offense following Dave Wannstedt's forced resignation last month.

WHAT TO WATCH: How focused and organized the Panthers are. The last month has been incredibly strange, with not one, but two head coaches being dismissed. The players weren't even sure who would coach them in the bowl game until Wannstedt announced Monday he would not be going to Birmingham. The program might have a new coach in place before kickoff. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will be serving as interim head coach, but the staff is missing defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, who both went to work for Rutgers. Where the players' heads are is anybody's guess, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Pitt struggle after all this dysfunction. Then again, maybe playing a game will serve as a major relief.

WHY WATCH: If for no other reason than to see the soap opera unfold on national TV. In strictly football terms, there will be a lot of playmakers on the field, like Kentucky's Randall Cobb. But the Wildcats have their own problems, starting with the loss of suspended starting quarterback Mike Hartline. Still, it's a team that nearly beat Auburn this season and upset South Carolina. Every Big East vs. the SEC matchup is worth watching for league respect, and Pitt needs to win a nonconference game against somebody of note this season.

PREDICTION: Kentucky is no juggernaut, especially without its quarterback. But Pitt also will be missing Big East defensive player of the year Jabaal Sheard and starting defensive tackle Myles Caragein because of injuries. Throw in all the off-the-field drama and the Panthers' inability to win big games all year, and I just don't see how they can claim a bowl victory. Make it Kentucky 31-21.
Kentucky is making its fifth straight bowl appearance and faces Pittsburgh on Saturday at noon ET on ESPN.

Here’s a quick preview of the BBVA Compass Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: He’s been one of the most versatile players in the SEC for the last two years, but this could be Randall Cobb’s final game in a Kentucky uniform. He’s yet to make a decision about turning pro and wants to focus solely on bringing the Wildcats a fifth straight winning season. Few players in this league have worn more hats and worn them with the success of Cobb. He leads the SEC with 2,192 all-purpose yards and scored touchdowns this season running, passing, receiving and returning a punt. If that’s not enough, he’s also the holder on extra points and field goals. Whatever he decides about his future, Cobb will go down as one of the finest players to ever play at Kentucky.

WHAT TO WATCH: With senior quarterback Mike Hartline suspended for this game, sophomore Morgan Newton gets his shot to lead the team without playing any meaningful snaps this season. When everybody was healthy, the Wildcats had one of the most balanced offenses in the league. But senior running back Derrick Locke went down with an injury, and Hartline was able to take the passing game to another level. The offensive playmakers are in place to put up more big numbers in this game. In addition to Cobb, senior Chris Matthews had a big season with nine touchdown catches. It comes down to how effective Newton is throwing the ball and running the offense after watching from the sideline all season.

WHY TO WATCH: The Hartline suspension certainly raised some eyebrows in and around the Kentucky program, but it was nothing compared to the turmoil Pittsburgh has faced. Dave Wannstedt was forced out as head coach and was replaced by former Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood, who was fired 16 days later after being arrested on domestic violence charges. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will coach the Panthers in the bowl game. We’ll find out on Saturday which team is more resilient.

PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 30, Kentucky 24. Had Hartline not been suspended, the Wildcats would be the team to beat in this game. But Newton has thrown just seven passes all year long and will no doubt have to get accustomed to game speed. He’s had more than a month to get ready. Pitt will take advantage of his lack of game action, though, and force him into some game-changing mistakes.

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