The 2011 BBVA Compass Bowl features some of the most compelling storylines of any of the 35 college postseason matchups, just not for the right reasons.
In an era where NCAA football has transformed to a steadfast ritual of cash grabs, and the market for bowl games approaches saturation, a human interest angle is often necessary to be truly engaged in a particular competition, especially one that pairs two teams that will admit they had forgettable seasons.
Were it not for the many intriguing subplots to this matchup between the 6-6 Kentucky Wildcats of the Southeastern Conference and the 7-5 Pittsburgh Panthers from the Big East, you would just as soon group the BBVA Compass Bowl's significance with the other 29 non-BCS bowl games.
Multiple head coaching changes within a single month, quarterback suspensions, criminal charges against coaches, NFL-bound players competing in their last collegiate game, and recruiting ramifications are only a few of the reasons this game of otherwise tertiary importance means so much to these two universities.
Dave Wannstedt resigned as Pittsburgh's head coach under pressure from the athletic department on Dec. 7, but was given the opportunity to coach the bowl game on Jan. 8. He has declined the invitation, but has continued to work with the team in practice leading up to the match against the Wildcats, and is still on the university payroll.
Pitt's athletic department believed that if Wannstedt were let go sooner rather than later, then the extra time would give athletic director Steve Pederson a jump-start on landing a quality head coach that would also energize the alumni. Suffice it to say Pederson will take a while to wipe the egg off his face.
Mike Haywood, the former head coach of Miami of Ohio who had a 1-11 season followed by a much-improved 9-4 record in 2010, was hired on Dec. 16 for his fiery demeanor and ability to turn a program around quickly. Unfortunately for the Panthers, he probably left their program in a far worse state since taking the job only 16 days before it was taken from him.
Haywood was arrested on domestic violence charges on Dec. 31, and was dismissed from his new head coaching position two days later. Pederson had used words like “integrity” and “discipline” to sell Haywood to the fan base, and the Pitt AD will have to now choose his words, as well as his next football coach, much more carefully. In the meantime, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will take over as the interim head coach for the bowl game.
One question that faces the university is how the football team will respond on the field to the constant changing of the guard? Even though the Panthers are favored by over a field goal, one might think that they may come out flat against the Wildcats even though Pederson issued a vote of confidence towards Bennett’s ability to lead the team in Birmingham. If nothing else, the Big East conference at least has momentum on its side in terms of this particular bowl game.
For the last three years, this Alabama-based postseason game, formerly known as the Papajohns.com Bowl (as well as the Dixie Bowl, Hall of Fame Bowl, and All-American Bowl prior to 2006), has been won by Big East teams by an average margin of over a touchdown per game. Pittsburgh has slightly more momentum with a 28-10 victory over Cincinnati, but all that momentum was lost with the departure of two head coaches within a month.
The Panthers finished third in the Big East, a conference that featured six bowl-eligible teams this season. The Wildcats, on the other hand, finished in fourth place out of five SEC East teams. However, since the SEC is regarded as the premiere college football conference, UK is the only FBS program to be invited to a bowl game with just two conference victories against six losses.
Pittsburgh faces Kentucky without their star quarterback and emotional leader in Mike Hartline, who was been suspended for his last collegiate game due to a Dec. 11 arrest for public intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct.
The 6’6” Hartline was having a very good statistical year prior to his booking. With 3,178 passing yards and 23 touchdowns against just nine interceptions, the senior was largely responsible for the Wildcats’ top-25 offensive ranking in points scored.
Starting in Hartline’s place will be Morgan Newton, a capable sophomore who started eight games in 2009, and tends to check down to outlet receivers more than he takes chances downfield. Coach Bennett should have an easier time game planning for Newton as opposed to Hartline, who can stretch the field and spread the ball around more capably.
Speaking of Bennett, the 55-year-old former coordinator will make his head coaching debut after almost 30 years behind the scenes. If the Pitt players rally behind their defensive coordinator who was given a battlefield promotion, then a BBVA Compass Bowl victory would be especially memorable for Bennett.
Unfortunately, most of the Pitt assistant coaches were recently swept out with Haywood, so without Wannstedt on the sidelines come gameday, the Panthers will be forced to work with a skeleton coaching crew since Pederson understandably hasn’t made any additional hires. This paucity of personnel could translate to poor preparedness for Pittsburgh, which could benefit the Wildcats.
Since Pitt was by and large the preseason favorite to win the Big East, Bennett may feel compelled to make some changes to an offense that ranks 69th in points scored. Sophomore Tino Sunseri has been a solid albeit unspectacular quarterback in his first full year as a starter.
If Sunseri is the long-term answer under center for the Panthers, then Bennett would do well to stick by the sophomore, as Pat Bostick is strictly backup material. Running back Dion Lewis, who rushed for 261 yards and four touchdowns in the last game against Cincinnati, should expect another heavy load of carries as he attacks Kentucky’s defense, which ranks 73rd in points allowed.
If Pitt can get an early lead, then they should lean on the ground game to milk the clock, wear out the UK defense, and rely on their 21st-ranked defense to double-team Kentucky’s playmakers.
The Panthers’ offense isn’t explosive like Kentucky’s, but at least they have all their playmakers in uniform, as opposed to Kentucky, who unlike Pittsburgh, has their entire coaching staff intact.
The Panthers have endured a rough few days as college football’s laughingstock du jour. A win over Kentucky might momentarily save face for the program, and render the hiring gaffe by Pederson as a mere footnote in history, especially if the next head coach can bring in some talent with the remaining scholarships the university has for the upcoming recruiting season, and place Pitt back atop the Big East.
But should the Panthers lose to Kentucky, the situation in the Steel City could go from bad to worse. If the head coach hiring process drags on for a month or more, Pitt, whose budget for a new head coach is only around a $1 million per season, could fail to land a legitimate name (like, say, recently-fired Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez, who has deep ties to the Big East) soon enough that will have enough time to attract recruits once the dust settles from the Haywood fiasco.
Pederson may need to hit up some generous alumni and boosters for the necessary capital to secure a coach who can set the program on the right path, and curb the negative publicity that has embarrassed the university.
Chris Matthews currently ranks as the No. 24 wide receiver in the current NFL draft pool, as his consistency and effective run blocking have made him one of the more heralded junior college transfers to emerge in the SEC. But Matthews’ raw athletic ability pales in comparison to all-purpose threat Randall Cobb, who was responsible for producing 18 total touchdowns this season with his legs, hands, and throwing arm.
Although the 2011 class boasts an unusually robust crop of WRs, Cobb’s talent is undeniable, and the junior, ranked No. 7, may not be able to resist the call of the professional ranks if he puts up impressive stats in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
While logic dictates that coach Joker Phillips will run a conservative gameplan for his sophomore quarterback, Newton has enough college starting experience where Phillips could remove the training wheels, and turn Newton loose to connect with WRs Cobbs, Mathews, and La’Rod King downfield.
This matchup against Pitt will be the sophomore quarterback’s chance to prove to coach Phillips and his teammates that he deserves to be Kentucky’s starting signal caller in 2011. If Newton falters in his opportunity, he may cement his reputation as a stopgap reserve, as opposed to the quarterback of the future in Lexington.
Newton only averaged 17 attempts and less than 90 yards passing over eight games started in 2009 when Hartline was sidelined due to injury, but made few mistakes as a game manager. If the Indiana native is to inspire confidence in his teammates and coaches, he’ll need to serve as more than just a checkdown specialist on Saturday.
Had Derrick Locke not missed four games with shoulder and elbow injuries, he would have easily eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing, had more than just ten touchdowns scored, and would certainly be mentioned as one of the top running back prospects that should hear their name called by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in April. As things currently stand, Locke is projected as a sixth-round pick, but he could easily elevate his draft stock if he performs well against a stout defense like Pitt on national television.
The senior will be one of the most motivated players on the field when Pitt and Kentucky square off, as Locke has literally millions of dollars at stake if he plays to his capabilities in the game scheduled to take place at Legion Field on Jan. 8 at 12:00pm EST.
Pitt DE Jabaal Sheard projects as a second-round NFL draftee
Given the chaos in Pittsburgh’s coaching hierarchy at the moment, one can safely assume that the juniors are looking to leave early in light of the fact that they have no idea who they’ll be playing for next season.
WR Jon Baldwin is a candidate to go pro, as he currently projects as the No. 6 wideout in the upcoming draft, even though he still has a year of eligibility remaining. Outside of Baldwin, though, no other Panther juniors seem NFL-ready. There are, however, a few seniors on both sides of the ball that bear mentioning:
Jabaal Sheard (DE) – The 2010 Big East Defensive Player of the Year projects as a second-round pick, and could be a future star at the professional level as well.
Jason Pinkston (OT) - The 6’4”, 308-lb left tackle was named to as a Rivals.com second-team All-American in 2009, has the size and strength to flourish at the next level, and projects as a second-to-third round pick.
Greg Romeus (DE) – The talented senior had only played one year of high school football before he was heavily recruited for his gifted athletic ability, and won Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year and Unanimous First Team All-Big East as a junior in 2009.
Unfortunately, Romeus tore a knee ligament in the game against Connecticut on Nov. 11, and was pronounced out for the season. He may have to wait for a full return to health before he can receive an invite from a professional franchise as an undrafted free agent.
Dom DeCicco (SS) – DeCicco finished the 2009 season on the all-Big East second team, but needs to shave a couple tenths off his 40-yard dash time before he is regarded by NFL scouts as anything more than a fringe talent. He might get selected in the seventh round, but may go undrafted unless he has a huge day at the NFL combine in Indianapolis in February.
While there may not be a lot at stake in this game of modest importance, a fiery, competitive matchup could generate a rivalry between these two schools, and possibly set up an out-of-conference rematch down the road.
Considering each of these universities’ football teams have been in existence since the 1880s, it’s a bit surprising that they’ve never faced each other once in the 1,500-plus weeks of college football that have transpired since these two programs began competing.
Only time will tell whether a coachless third-place school in a conference more known for its prowess in basketball can defeat the eighth-place dregs of the most competitive football conference in the nation.