Kentucky (6-6) and Pittsburgh (7-5) meet tomorrow morning in the BBVA Compass Bowl.* In a bowl season that included such gems as Ohio vs. Troy, Toledo vs. Florida International, and Army vs. SMU, there’s a pretty serious case to be made that this is the worst game of the bunch. No other bowl can compete with the sucktitude that this bowl offers: mediocre teams, unmotivated players, suspended starters, fired coaches, sponsors no one’s heard of, and domestic assault charges. On the plus side, the game is on at 11 am and it’s something to watch before the NFL playoff games. So there’s that.
* From Wikipedia: “BBVA Compass is a Southeastern and Southwestern financial holding company headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with US$65 billion in assets.” Now you know.
Kentucky finished 6-6 this season and owns one quality win – a 31-28 upset victory over SEC East champion South Carolina. They also played Auburn tough in a 37-34 loss, so they are definitely capable of playing quality football. This story should sound familiar. The Wildcats have finished either 6-6 or 7-5 in each of the five seasons since 2006. I find this astounding. That’s five consecutive years of consistent mediocrity. They’re like the According to Jim of college football teams. According to Jim somehow lasted eight seasons despite being a completely mediocre and forgettable sitcom. That kind of extended mediocrity is not easy – you almost have to have a commitment to doing just enough to be average in every way.
Of course with that said, you have to question the Wildcats’ motivation. Here are the Wildcats’ bowl destinations in the last five years: Nashville, Nashville, Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham. That’s five years of traveling to bowls that are closer to Lexington than any SEC team save Tennessee and Vanderbilt. It was probably fun the first time, but I feel like my reaction to another close bowl bid would be “Seriously? We have to bus to the game again?” In their defense, they have won three of four games (losing only to Clemson last season), so maybe I’m way off-base here. But a team can finish .500 and go to weak bowl games only so many times before it starts to wear on them.
Kentucky’s senior starting quarterback Mike Hartline was suspended for this game after a DUI arrest in early December. However, backup quarterbacks Randall Cobb and Morgan Newton are not typical backups. Cobb is a quarterback-turned-star wide receiver who the Wildcats like to put in the Wildcat formation.* Newton is a sophomore in line to be starter next year after Hartline graduates. He only saw action in three games this season in mop-up duty, but started eight games for Kentucky last season after Hartline broke his collarbone. He performed fairly well and led the Wildcats to a 5-2 record in their last seven regular season games just to qualify for a bowl game. In short, the Kentucky offense won’t suffer much without Hartline.
* Cobb’s stats this season are fantastically diverse: 5-10 passing for 58 yards and 3 touchdowns, 52 rushes for 401 yards and 5 touchdowns, and 79 catches for 955 yards and 7 touchdowns. Now that is what you call a dynamic player.
Besides the quarterback injury, Kentucky is basically the same team they have been since I can remember – a solid offense and a terrible defense.
Pittsburgh finished the season with a rocky 7-5 record. Like Kentucky, they are the same team that we have come to expect. The Panthers have a solid defense, a questionable offense, and underachieved for the 19th consecutive year. The Panthers opened up 3-0 in the weak Big East and needed only to win three of their last four games to earn a BCS berth. After a loss to Connecticut, Pitt needed to beat rival West Virginia at home in the Backyard Brawl to win the conference. As a three-point favorite, they failed to win in spectacular fashion, fumbling the ball six times (losing three) and throwing an interception in a 35-10 loss. Typically, I would say that they will be unmotivated in this game after blowing a potential BCS bid, but a team that loses by 25 in a rivalry game at home that they need to win to qualify for a BCS game was not going to be motivated in the first place.
Then there is the matter of the Pitt coaching carousel. After another disappointing season, Pitt fired career underachiever Dave Wannstedt. Probably a good move in the long-term, but in the short-term, Wannstedt was a player’s coach and this year’s players were stung by the firing. The school hired Miami-Ohio’s head coach Mike Haywood on December 16 and promptly fired him on January 1 after he was arrested on New Year’s Eve for allegedly assaulting his baby’s mama in a custody dispute.
This coaching carousel prompted a Pitt fan at the Covers.com forums to post “Pitt is an absolute mess right now. I’m hearing rumors of players threatening not to play at all.” Well then.
The best thing that either one of these teams has going for them is that somebody has to win. I think it will be Kentucky by default. Pitt is not a particularly good team in the first place. Now they find themselves in Birmingham when they were practically a shoo-in to win the weak Big East Conference’s BCS bid as late as mid-November, while simultaneously trying to not be distracted as the school attempts to break the record for most coaches in a 5-week period. This could be the first time that a bowl team that lost their starting quarterback to a DUI is the more focused team, but I think that will be the case. Kentucky wins 20-10.