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2012 BBVA Compass Bowl Preview

Pittsburgh Panthers vs SMU Mustangs

When the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Southern Methodist Mustangs meet at Legion Field in Birmingham at the Compass Bowl on the first Saturday of January, they won’t stir an overwhelming degree of excitement. They will, however, cause college football fans of a certain age to take a trip back in time.

Indeed, when the 6-6 Panthers face the 7-5 Ponies in the heart of Alabama, it will be hard for even the most devoted college football fans – fatigued after the extra-long bowl season – to pay too much attention to this game. Lower-tier bowls should be played on Dec. 27, not Jan. 7. Nevertheless, this game has been scheduled, and so it must be played. Two mediocre squads won’t generate a lot of natural interest, but the histories of these programs sure will.

In this upcoming contest, there isn’t a lot that can be said to recommend Pitt or SMU to a viewing audience. Pittsburgh scuffled all year under first-year coach Todd Graham, a product of the Panthers’ offseason turmoil as found in the form of two coaching transitions. Dave Wannstedt was replaced by Mike Haywood, but less than two weeks after Haywood was hired, Pitt’s newly-minted head coach was charged with domestic violence against his wife. Haywood was fired, and Graham – in a pinch – took the job. The result was the mixture of a new coach with players recruited to fit a different system. Predictably, Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri didn’t easily embrace Graham’s offensive concepts, leading the Panthers to drift through their autumn without a clear sense of direction. Against South Florida, this offensive thrived, but when star running back Ray Graham went down against Connecticut with an injury, the Panthers couldn’t rebound. Up one week and down the next, Graham’s group ended up where you’d expect it to finish: at the .500 mark. Graham won’t be available for this bowl game, which means that Pittsburgh will take the field with a minimal amount of resources.

For SMU, the clouds of uncertainty have rolled into the picture, threatening to take away the forward strides this program has made in recent years. SMU coach June Jones finally lifted the Mustangs to a bowl game in 2009, taking the Dallas-based school to the postseason for the first time since the pre-death penalty days of the mid-1980s. Now, however, Jones is being courted by Arizona State after the Sun Devils fired former coach Dennis Erickson. If Jones leaves, SMU will have lost the leader who enabled the Ponies to emerge from the shadows. Jones’s coaching status is likely to distract from his players in this game, wiping out any advantage the Mustangs might have had against Pittsburgh’s shorthanded offense. The more you look at the matchups in this game, the more college basketball emerges as a likely TV alternative on a January Saturday.

If there’s an enticing element to be found in this game, it’s the history behind each program, a history that knitted these schools together on New Year’s Day of 1983. In the 1983 Cotton Bowl, one of the most star-studded collections of premium NFL talent took to one field, as Pittsburgh traveled from its Western Pennsylvania home to Dallas. The weather was miserably wet and cold, limiting the ability of each offense to perform, but the mere sight of Pittsburgh quarterback Dan Marino on one side of the field, matched against SMU’s “Pony Express” of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, thrilled a national television audience and left an enduring imprint on the mind’s eye. The reunion of Pitt and SMU on the gridiron will bring Cotton Bowl memories rushing back to the surface.

That’s the benefit this game brings to the college football world.

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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