The Pittsburgh Panthers playing the Ole Miss Rebels in the Compass Bowl isn't exactly Alabama vs Notre Dame in the National Championship. However, with only three games left in the college football season, the game does take on some sense of importance.
It represents one of our only opportunities as fans to soak in college football before the dreaded hibernation we know as the offseason begins.
The Panthers and Rebels are both fairly similar teams. Both teams finished with 6-6 records and both teams struggled with consistency as they came up just short against some teams while getting blown out by others.
With both teams coming off long layoffs, they'll both look to shake off the cobwebs and end the season with a winning mark and some momentum heading into recruiting season and next year.
Here are the keys for each team to come out on top.
Keys for Pitt
Pound the Ball
Between Pitt and Ole Miss, there's exactly one player that is expected to be taken in the 2013 NFL draft—Pitt running back Ray Graham.
Graham is by no means a first-round prospect, but he will be the most talented player on the field when these two teams meet up. As such, the Panthers should look to get the ball to Graham early and often.
The 5'9" 190-pound Graham is the type of back that is more effective as the game goes on and really thrives when he's given plenty of carries. Anytime Pittsburgh has looked impressive as a team it's because they've stuck with Graham even when he's not racking up a ton of yards.
When the Panthers went to double overtime against Notre Dame, Graham racked up 172 yards against the Irish on 24 carries. Although the Panthers ultimately lost, it's arguably the team's best performance.
If Pitt wins this game, it will be because they stuck with Graham and the run game.
Stay the Course on Defense
Pittsburgh's defense may be one of the best kept secrets in college football.
The Panthers rank in the Top 25 in yards per game, scoring, rushing and passing defense. There aren't many defenses in the country that can say that. This is as dominant a unit that you will find, especially among 6-6 teams.
However, with such a long layoff, there's always the chance that the defense comes out flat. To avoid that this unit must come out and play fundamentally sound football. The Ole Miss offense is an underrated unit itself, so Pitt can't afford a slow start on that side of the ball.
Keys for Ole Miss
The Rebels offense is capable of putting points on the board. The underrated unit averages 30.9 points per game in an SEC conference that is known for great defense.
The problem is that Ole Miss must put the ball in the air to get those points.
Quarterback Bo Wallace has put together some great performances this season and ended the season with a five-touchdown performance against Mississippi State to close out the season.
Wallace also has a penchant for throwing interceptions that cost the Rebels dearly.
He has thrown multiple interceptions in four of the team's six losses. If he throws multiple interceptions against this Pittsburgh defense, opportunities to bounce back will be rare.
Be Aggressive on Defense
The Rebels defense isn't nearly as stout as the Panthers defense. That means they'll need to turn this game into a shootout.
Pittsburgh is a throwback team. It will look to pound the ball with Ray Graham and set up Tino Sunseri with easy throws off of play action. Sunseri has executed those with deadly efficiency this season. He has 19 touchdowns and two interceptions on the season.Those are AJ McCarron-esque stats.
The solution is to be aggressive.
Sure, they'll get burned on occasion—that's what happens when you play aggressive against a conservative offense. But when the alternative is allowing the opponent to control the pace and make the game a defensive battle, getting burnt isn't the worst thing that can happen.
Sunseri interceptions have been rare, but if the Rebels can force one by getting to him early and often, it could change the game entirely.
The Rebels can't count on consistently stopping this efficient attack. They will have to take risks and make plays to set the offense up with good opportunities.