TPN staff breaks down bowl season


Pitt football will be taking on Syracuse in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31. (TPN file photo)

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

With Christmas just around the corner, you know what they say — ’tis the season … for college bowl games. While most think of December as holiday season, it also brings an entertaining slate of high-stakes college football competition. Our Pitt News Sports staff guides you through six of the best matchups over Christmas break.

Pitt (7-6) vs. Stanford (8-4) in the Sun Bowl

Trent: Stanford 33, Pitt 24

Nitti: Pitt 31, Stanford 27

John: Pitt 27, Stanford 24

Stephen: Pitt 20, Stanford 17

Tessa: Stanford 31, Pitt 24

Andrew: Pitt: 16, Stanford 14

The Panthers were a very streaky team this season. After beating Albany in a warm-up game, they lost three of four, including blowouts to Penn State and UCF and an embarrassing loss to two-win UNC. At that point, it looked like Pitt football was destined for a second straight losing season, with its defense in disarray and its quarterback, sophomore Kenny Pickett, drastically underachieving.

To everyone’s surprise, the Panthers found their groove after that. They knocked off five straight ACC opponents thanks to an improved defense and the nation’s No. 16 rushing offense. Pickett and the passing game didn’t show any improvement, but it didn’t matter — Pitt steamrolled its way to an ACC Coastal title while the rest of the division beat each other up.

But over the last two games, it looks like the Panthers have resorted back to their old ways. They put up an absolute stinker of a game in the season finale, posting a season-low 200 yards and only scoring 3 points in their loss to Miami. They managed to set a new-season low the next week in a 42-10 loss to Clemson, earning 199 total yards — including an almost unfathomably bad 8 passing yards from Pickett. No one expected Pitt to win the game, but it would have been nice to hang within 30 points and, you know, pass for double-digit yards.

So which Pitt team will show up in El Paso against Stanford? Will it be the one that tore through most of the ACC, or the one that lost three games by 30 or more points?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. Bad news first — the Panthers’ once-fearsome rushing attack has looked toothless since losing sophomore center Jimmy Morrissey to a season-ending ankle injury against Wake Forest in Week 11, rushing for just 69 and 191 yards, respectively, in the two games since — a far cry from their season average of 228.8. It turns out Morrissey may have been a pretty key member of the operation.

The good news — Miami and Clemson had two of the best defenses in the nation, ranking third and fourth, respectively. Pitt’s antiquated, run-oriented offense never stood a chance. But the Panthers did have success this season against malleable defenses that could be bullied at the line of scrimmage — defenses like Stanford’s, which ranks a pedestrian No. 82 in the nation.

If Pitt is going to win, the team will have to get back to its roots and impose its will on the ground, with senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall looking to go out with a bang in their final college competition. It may be a tall order, but four of our six writers believe they’re up for the task.

UCF (12-0) vs. LSU (9-3) in the Fiesta Bowl

Trent: UCF 31, LSU 28

Nitti: LSU 28, UCF 20

John: LSU 35, UCF 24

Stephen: UCF 42, LSU 20

Tessa: LSU 31, UCF 20

Andrew: UCF 34, LSU 27

Last season, the UCF Knights caught the nation by storm by going undefeated through 12 games. Many dismissed their perfect season as the result of an easy schedule in the non-Power Five American Athletic Conference, but they put that notion to bed with a 34-27 victory over SEC darling Auburn in last season’s Peach Bowl.

This year, UCF tore through its schedule unscathed once again, only to wind up right back where they finished last year — outside the College Football Playoffs looking in. The issues with the playoff system could be devoted to another column entirely, but the point is that the Knights should be ticked off. They’ve won 25 straight games, and the best the committee could do was give them a No. 8 ranking.

The Knights have that motivation working in their favor, but many people have written them off because star junior quarterback Mckenzie Milton suffered a gruesome, season-ending injury two weeks ago. Milton led the team’s high-octane all of 2017 and 2018 — but first-year backup quarterback Darriel Mack showed he’s up for the challenge by leading UCF to a 56-41 win over Memphis in the AAC championship.

Three of our writers like the favorite, perennial SEC powerhouse LSU, to overtake UCF in this one. Hopefully, UCF proves them — and all the other non believers — wrong for the second season, if for no other reason than to show that the SEC is overrated and the College Football Playoff system needs to be revised.

Mississippi State (8-4) vs. Iowa (8-4) in the Outback Bowl

Trent: Miss. State 24, Iowa 16

Nitti: Miss. St. 21, Iowa 14

John: Iowa 28, Miss. State 27

Stephen: Iowa 20, Miss. State 10

Tessa: Iowa 31, Miss. State 17

Andrew: Iowa 23, Miss. State 14

We all have that one grandpa who laments where society is heading, with its unnecessary new-fangled technology. This same grandpa also like to complain about how no one plays defense in football anymore. He turns his nose up at the innovative, high-scoring offenses which have become so common, instead attributing it to a lack of toughness on the kiddos playing defense. “Why, back in my day, guys would die on the field before they let the other team score more than 10 points!” he might say.

Well, have I got good news for your grandpa.

The Outback Bowl features two teams who pride themselves on keeping their opponent out of the end zone, with Mississippi State holding teams to just 12.5 points per game — No. 1 in the nation — while Iowa isn’t far behind at No. 11, allowing 17.7 points per game.

To many, this game will be a low-scoring snoozefest. But it’s a geezer’s paradise, and our staff gives the perennially boring Iowa Hawkeyes a 4-2 advantage.

West Virginia (8-3) vs. Syracuse (9-3) in the Camping World Bowl

Trent: WVU 52, Syracuse 42

Nitti: WVU 45, Syracuse 40

John: WVU 48, Syracuse 27

Stephen: WVU 42, Syracuse 30

Tessa: WVU 42, Syracuse 27

Andrew: WVU 38, Syracuse 27

While the previous game would blend right in a retirement home lobby, this is one of those matchups that embodies modern football — two teams who care little about defense and win by spreading it out, chucking the ball downfield and hoping to outscore their opponent.

These are two of the most productive offenses in the nation, with West Virginia checking in at No. 8 nationally with 509.9 yards per game and Syracuse ranking No. 15 with 473.2 yards per game. The Mountaineers have scored at least 40 points in each of their past five games. Syracuse topped the 50-point mark in half its games this season. This could be fun.

With both teams consistently scoring grotesque amounts of points all season long, it would be foolish to expect anything but yet another shootout. That’s why our predicted scores mostly feature numbers in the 40s, and we all agree that West Virginia will come out on top — even if it might take 60 points.

Clemson (13-0) vs. Notre Dame (12-0) in Cotton Bowl

Trent: Clemson 28, Notre Dame 17

Nitti: Clemson 35, Notre Dame 17

John: Clemson 34, Notre Dame 20

Stephen: Clemson 45, Notre Dame 21

Tessa: Notre Dame 35, Clemson 30

Andrew: Notre Dame 38, Clemson 31

Clemson and Notre Dame are both technically undefeated, but they earned their perfect seasons in very different ways. The Tigers bulldozed anyone who dared stand in their path, winning games by an average of 30.9 points, which would be No. 1 if not for a historically dominant Alabama team.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, awkwardly tiptoed past some subpar competition, including an 8-point win over Ball State, a 5-point win over Vanderbilt, and some last-minute heroics to snag a 5-point win over Pitt.

The Fighting Irish are a solid, fundamentally sound team. But Clemson — with its dominant defense and dynamic offense, led by sophomore running back and ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne — is on another level. The Tigers advanced to two of the past three national championships, and four of our writers favor them to make another appearance.

Alabama (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (12-1) in Orange Bowl

Trent: Alabama 42, Oklahoma 35

Nitti: Alabama 38, Oklahoma 27

John: Alabama 41, Oklahoma 38

Stephen: Alabama 45, Oklahoma 42

Tessa: Alabama 42, Oklahoma 30

Andrew: Oklahoma 49, Alabama 45

Earlier in this column, we billed the Camping World Bowl as the ultimate offensive entree. But this game — headlined by the nation’s most two talented players, Alabama sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma junior Kyler Murray — actually features the two highest-scoring teams in the nation, Oklahoma at No. 1 with 49.5 points per game and Alabama at No. 2 with 47.8 points per game.

Enough can’t be said about the storylines entering this game. Alabama has been to the last three national championships but is somehow better than ever because of Tagovailoa, who’s only thrown eight passes in the fourth quarter all season because the Crimson Tide blow their opponents out so badly. On the other side is Murray, who’s thrown for 4,053 yards and 40 touchdowns, while adding another 892 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. There’s a compelling argument for each to win the Heisman award.

This is the definition of a “must watch” game, as many eyes will be on the electrifying Murray and the Sooners to put an end to Alabama’s reign of terror. Five of our six staff members give the edge to the Crimson Tide because of one factor — defense. Alabama allows an average of 14.7 points per game, while Oklahoma gives up 32.4.