At one time, it appeared SMU might be the team in the BBVA Compass Bowl that would have to get past the loss of its coach. Instead, it's the Mustangs' opponent which has to do that.
Pittsburgh will play its first game since Todd Graham's abrupt departure and try to deny SMU coach June Jones his 100th collegiate victory Saturday in Birmingham, Ala.
Jones was thought to be headed to Arizona State to take over for the fired Dennis Erickson, but the deal fell through much to the surprise of his agent, Leigh Steinberg, who lashed out at that school on Twitter.
"One of the prices of winning is you get contacted a lot of times for different opportunities," said Jones, 99-69 in 13 seasons at the collegiate level. "I had an opportunity that appealed, so I listened. I'm very happy at SMU."
Instead of bringing in Jones, Arizona State hired Graham, who resigned his post at Pittsburgh hours after athletic director Steve Pederson declined to give him permission for an interview. Adding to the bitterness was Graham's decision to inform his players by text message that he was leaving after one year on the job.
On his Twitter account, Panthers wide receiver Devin Street insulted his former coach with the moniker "Little Man Graham."
"If y'all say we can't get mad. Y'all are crazy you grown men out there how would you feel if you been lied to and used," Street also posted.
With Graham gone, the job for this game has fallen to defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, Pitt's fifth full-time/interim coach in 13 months. Pitt named Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst coach Dec. 22.
"The bar is set high in the 'City of Champions' and that is incredibly exciting and inspiring," Chryst said. "I can't wait to meet our players and get to work."
The Panthers (6-6) are seeking a third consecutive bowl victory, having beaten Kentucky 27-10 in last season's BBVA Compass Bowl with another interim coach, Phil Bennett.
Bennett took over when Dave Wannstedt was let go and replacement Mike Haywood was fired following an arrest on a domestic violence charge in Indiana.
Reaching a bowl game for the fourth straight year seemed unlikely for the Panthers after a 1-4 skid into mid-October, but the Panthers won three of their final five games to become eligible. The two defeats were by a combined four points and came to Big East co-champions Cincinnati and West Virginia.
"We're going to finish what we started," Patterson said. "That's the way I was raised and that's what we're going to do."
Pitt finished strong despite losing one of the nation's leading rushers, junior Ray Graham, to a season-ending knee injury during a win over Connecticut on Oct. 26. Graham had 958 yards in eight games.
Senior Zach Brown, a transfer from Wisconsin, and freshman Issac Bennett combined for 422 yards over the final four games. Brown should play in the bowl game after missing the season finale, a 33-20 win over against Syracuse on Dec. 3, because of a bruised sternum.
SMU (7-5) is also without its leading rusher, Zach Line, who underwent season-ending toe surgery Nov. 17. The junior had 1,224 yards and 17 touchdowns, two shy of matching Eric Dickerson's single-season school record set in 1981. Line is the fifth player in school history with multiple 1,000-yard seasons.
Even when Line was healthy, the Mustangs struggled for consistency in the second half of the season. They lost four of their final six games, averaging 8.5 points in those defeats.
They'll try to wrap up this campaign with their second bowl victory in three seasons with help from freshmen Rishaad Wimbley and Jared Williams.
Wimbley had only 14 carries for 48 yards all season before rushing for 115 and two touchdowns on 20 attempts in a regular season-ending 27-24 win over Rice on Nov. 26. Williams gained 80 yards - giving him 150 this season - and also scored his first TD.
Mustangs receivers Darius Johnson and Cole Beasley are both closing in on 1,000-yard campaigns. Johnson has a team-leading 998 yards on 72 receptions, while Beasley has caught a team-best 79 passes for 954 yards.
Most of those throws have come from senior J.J. McDermott, who replaced former starter Kyle Padron during the season opener and never relinquished the job. McDermott has 3,182 yards and 16 touchdowns but also was intercepted 16 times.
The Mustangs defense will try to take advantage of a Panthers offensive line that allowed junior quarterback Tino Sunseri to be sacked 54 times, 33 more than in 2010.
SMU, in its third bowl game since emerging from the NCAA's death penalty in 1989, is facing Pitt for the first time since a 7-3 victory in the 1983 Cotton Bowl. The all-time series is deadlocked at 2-2-1.
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- Sports & Recreation/American Football
- Todd Graham