Most people around Pittsburgh thought that their University of Pittsburgh Panthers might be headed for a real break out season.
After all, they had a new football coach that had been around some good programs, one of the country's top running backs and a veteran signal-caller back for another season. What could go wrong?
What went wrong was a season-opening 31-17 loss to Youngstown State at home. That was followed a week two 24-point loss to a pretty good University of Cincinnati team on the road. Two straight losses to open the season, could that spell doom for the Panther season?
Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri (12) talks with offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph during practice in Hoover, Ala., Wednesday. Pittsburgh plays Mississippi in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday at Legion Field in Birmingham.
Enter Virginia Tech and little-known Gardner-Webb. Virginia Tech was being lauded as a Top 10 team in the pre-season, but it would end up at .500 and Gardner-Webb, well, that was a gimme. In back-to-back weeks, the Panthers beat Tech by 35-17 and Gardner-Webb by 55-10.
At 2-2, new coach Paul Chryst was hoping his Panthers were jump-started and headed on the right track. One look at the Pitt schedule and it was plain to see that the Panthers' season was riding a rough road.
As it turned out, the Panthers did everything in 2's. They opened with two losses, then won two, then repeated that two-and-two throughout the remainder of the season. So, winning the last two, does that mean the Panthers are on a winning streak that will carry over into the BBVA Compass Bowl battle with Mississippi on January 5 in Birmingham, Alabama or, if the pattern continues, does it mean (well, you get the picture)?
Whether it be by one or by 100, losses are losses. However, looking back on the Panther season, it is obvious that Pitt football kept getting better as the season progress even with the setbacks.
First, there was the exciting triple overtime loss to unbeaten and top-ranked Notre Dame. That was the closest the Fighting Irish came to not only losing a game, but losing out on a date with destiny and playing Alabama for the BCS title. In that game, it was not until late that the Irish were able to break through a tough Panther defense and send the game into OT and Pitt had its chances in each of the three extra quarters.
They lost by one at Syracuse, by seven at Connecticut and closed out the season with a 27-6 win over a Rutgers team that is leaving the Big East and heading to the Big Ten in 2014 and a South Florida that is historically trouble for everybody.
A look at the 12 teams on the Pitt schedule this season shows seven of those teams with records of .500 or better. Notre Dame, of course, finished at 12-0, Louisville was 11-2, Rutgers and Cincinnati finished at 9-3 and that Youngstown State team that beat the Panthers in the opener, finished at 9-3. Syracuse was 8-5.
Hired in December of 2011 to replace Todd Graham, who skipped town to become the head coach at Arizona State University, Chryst came to Pittsburgh off an eight-year stint at Wisconsin where he served as the offensive coordinator while also coaching quarterbacks and tight ends.
From 1997 to 2011, he bounced between Wisconsin and Oregon State holding down the offensive coordinator role in each of the stops.
In 1995, he held the same position at Illinois State and in'93 was the OC at University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He got his start at WVU as a graduate assistant.
Chryst also dabbled in professional football, from 1991 to 1996; he coached in the Canadian Football League with stops at Ottawa and Saskatchewan and two years at San Antonio in the World League. He was the tight ends coach for the San Diego Chargers from 1999-2001.
That is quite a coaching resume for a first-year head coach, but he was thrust into a tough job at Pitt, a program with a lot of tradition.
Pitt will be playing in its 29th bowl game and third straight at the BBVA Compass Bowl. Last season, the Panthers lost to Southern Methodist, 28-6. In 2011, they beat a very talented Kentucky team, 27-10. Entering the January bowl with Ole Miss, the Panthers own a 12-16 record in bowl games. This will be the first time that the Panthers and Ole Miss have met in football.
Incidentally, Pitt is 12-2-1 all-time against teams currently in the SEC.
Pitt enters the contest with its second all-time leading rusher in Ray Graham. The senior from Elizabeth, New Jersey is second only to Tony Dorsett with 3,271 yards rushing and second in all-purpose yards with 4,943.
Against Notre Dame's great defense he rushed for a season high 172 yards on 24 carries.
At quarterback, the Panthers have a veteran starter in Tino Sunseri, a Pittsburgh boy who graduated from Pittsburgh Central Catholic. He comes into the game with a streak of 270 passes without an interception.
He is ranked second in the Big East and 19th in the country in passing efficiency. He has completed 240 of 361 passes for 3,103 yards and 19 TDs and only two interceptions.
Two of the Big East's top receivers will also lineup with the Panthers. Junior Devin Street from Bethlehem, PA averages 5.5 catches and nearly 75 yards per game in receiving and senior Mike Shanahan from North Huntingdon, PA averaged nearly 80 yards per game.
Shanahan has 155 receptions and 2,219 yards in his career, Street has caught 144 passes for 1,964 yards.
Defensively, look for junior tackle Aaron Donald, with 18.5 tackles for losses to lead the Panthers. Donald also leads Pitt with 5.5 sacks. Junior nose tackle Tyrone Ezell has 3.5 sacks.
Hugh Freeze was hired as Mississippi's 37th head coach last December after posting a 10-2 record at Arkansas State last year along with a 12-1 and 8-4 records at Lambuth College (NAIA). Freeze's biggest success came at the high school level. He put together a 99-23 record as a prep coach in Tennessee, twice winning a state championship and was a six-time regional champ.
A Mississippi native, Freeze is hoping to turn Ole Miss into a southern powerhouse. His 6-6 season was somewhat deceiving considering five of the Rebels losses came to the likes of Texas, Texas A&M, Georgia, LSU and the other half of the national championship game, Alabama.
If the Rebels are going to handle the Panthers, they will do so with a talented quarterback that has been battling a shoulder injury for the majority of the season and not a lot of big number offensive players.
Sophomore QB Bo Wallace has accounted for 3206 totals yards. He has completed 213 of 336 passes for 2,843 yards and 19 TDs, but has also throw 15 INTs.
He has run an additional 363 yards and eight scores.
Freeze's top backs are junior Jeff Scott with 191 carries for 828 yards and freshman Jaylen Walton who has averaged 23.3 yards on kick returns that include a 100-yarder for a score this season. Donte Moncrief leads the receivers with 60 catches for 948 yards and 10 TDs.
On defensive side of the ball, the Rebels feature one of the best freshman linebackers in the country in Denzel Nkemdiche, The OLB led the way with 34 solos, 44 assists and 78 total tackles. He had 12 tackles for losses. He was selected as a freshman All-American by Scout.com. Free safety Cody Prewitt, a sophomore, had 75 total tackles including 41 solos and 34 assists.
The game can be seen on ESPN2 with Eamon McAnaney handling the play-by-play, David Diaz-Infante, the analyst and Paul Carcaterra, will be the reporter on the field.
KICKOFF is set for 1 p.m.