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Kentucky Wildcats vs. Pittsburgh Panthers: BBVA Compass Bowl Preview

With all the talk and excitement about basketball, we cannot forget that the Kentucky Wildcats will be facing off against the Pittsburgh Panthers in a Big East/SEC matchup Saturday at noon in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

The BBVA Compass Bowl began its life in 2006 as the bowl.  The bowl itself is owned and operated by ESPN Regional Television.  Previous contests have featured such worthies as the South Florida Bulls versus the East Carolina Pirates, the Cincinnati Bearcats versus the Southern Miss. Golden Eagles, and last year, the Connecticut Huskies versus the South Carolina Gamecocks.

The Panthers come into this game with about as much post-season turmoil as is possible for a football team.  Head coach Dave Wannstedt was fired near the end of the season, and Mike Haygood was offered and accepted the job.  Seventeen days, later, Haygood was fired after an arrest allegedly involving domestic violence.  That's when Phil Bennett, the defensive coordinator, was asked to coach the bowl game.  The coaching search continues for the Panthers, but rumor has it they are close to hiring Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.

More after the jump.

Here's a record comparison of the two teams:

Team Record Split Kentucky Pittsburgh
All Games 6-6 7-5
at Home 5-2 4-2
on Road/Neutral Site 1-4 3-3
vs. Conference 2-6 5-2
vs. Non-Conference 4-0 2-3
vs. Ranked (AP) 1-2 0-3
vs. Unranked (AP) 5-4 7-2
vs. FBS (I-A) 5-6 6-5
vs. FCS (I-AA) 1-0 1-0
vs. FBS Winning 2-3 4-5
vs. FBS Non-Winning 3-3 2-0
vs. BCS AQ 3-6 5-4
vs. BCS non-AQ 2-0 1-1
in August/September 3-1 1-2
in October 1-4 4-1
in November 2-1 1-2
in December/January 0-0 1-0

Looking at the Panthers

Pittsburgh comes into this game off a disappointing season.  Losses at Connecticut and at home against Notre Dame and West Virginia threw a monkey wrench into an otherwise promising year.

The Panthers are led by sophomore QB Tino Sunseri, who was third in the Big East in passing at 205 yards/game.  Sunseri had big games against Notre Dame, Rutgers and West Virgina, all over 270 yards in passing.  Sunseri has been efficient in both wins and losses, so there is no clear tie to Pittsburgh needing a big game from him to win.  Sunseri is also a highly mobile quarterback, the likes of which seem to always give Kentucky difficulties.

Sunseri's favorite target is junior wideout Jon Baldwin.  Baldwin has 52 catches this year for 810 yards, which works out to almost 16 yards per catch and 5 touchdowns.  Sophomore Mike Shanahan is just behind with 42 catches for an average of almost 14 yards/catch and 1 touchdown.

Pittsburgh's rushing attack is led by sophomore running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham who average 87 and 69 yards respectively.  Pittsburgh, like Kentucky, is a balanced run/pass team and will try to take advantage of the weakness that the Wildcats have exhibited all season against the run.

But the biggest advantage for the Panthers will be their defense.  Pittsburgh boasts the #20 scoring defense in the country, #18 against the pass and #20 against the run.  Even though the Panther's offense is no slouch, it is comparatively the weakest part of their overall team.  Pittsburgh converts only about 80% of their red zone opportunities, which is not a very strong number, especially considering the conference that the Panthers played in.

Pittsburgh has a good special teams group, but nothing spectacular.  The Panthers have a dangerous punt returner in sophomore WR Cameron Saddler.

As far as injuries are concerned, there seem to be no significant injuries that did not exist during Pittsburgh's last game.

Looking at the Wildcats

Kentucky is coming off a season of missed opportunities.  Winnable games at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Tennessee went by the boards as well as an opportunity to upset #1 Auburn and wounded Georgia at home.  Despite having their quarterback reach #2 in the SEC in passing, the Wildcats' porous defense, particularly on the ground, proved to be their undoing.

Senior quarterback Mike Hartline, the SEC's#2 passer, is suspended for this game due to some shenanigans that got him arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior.  In his stead, Joker Phillips will insert last year's starter Morgan Newton, who is said to be improving.  This is an opportunity for Newton to shine.

This is also the last hurrah for running back Derrick Locke, and possibly for wide receiver Randall Cobb, the one-two punch that will knock out the Panthers if they have no answer for them.  Both should be fully healthy for the first time in a while, and that makes Kentucky a threat to upset the favored Panthers in this game.

Kentucky adds some depth and quality to the defensive line with the return of Mister Cobble from suspension.  Cobble should be a big help against Pittsburgh's quality running game, and could be a difference-maker for Kentucky defensively.  Danny Trevathan and the linebacking corps which has been hobbled by injury should be back to as close to full strength as it has been all year.

Injuries-wise, the 'Cats are pretty healthy, but the aforementioned Mike Hartline is suspended, and so is starting defensive tackle Mark Crawford.

The Bowl Game

Despite the strength of Pittsburgh's defense, they have not played a schedule like the Wildcats.  It seems likely that we will have two teams that can score, and will, frequently.  Pittsburgh is strong enough offensively to put up points on the Wildcats, and Kentucky has too many weapons for Pittsburgh's stronger defense.

What this game will likely come down to is special teams and turnovers, as there is no clear advantage elsewhere.  Kentucky has been up and down on special teams this year, and if they continue with this inconsistency, the Panthers should have enough to win.  Kentucky, however, has the more dangerous special teams group,and if they play well, the Panthers could be in trouble.

Turnover-wise, Pittsburgh has the better turnover margin, but they have played a softer schedule.  With that said, the Panthers have a little bit more margin for error on turnovers, and Kentucky has very little.  If the Wildcats win the turnover battle by just one, they still could lose this game.  I think if the Panthers win the turnovers, they will win the game.

The X-factor is the head coaching situation for the Panthers.  The team is certainly demoralized by the turmoil currently surrounding the program, and Pitt's excellent recruiting class is now in serious jeopardy due to the coaching chaos.  If the Panthers carry all this baggage with them onto Legion Field on Saturday, they could be in for a long afternoon.

My pick:  Kentucky, 27-24.