Bowl Breakdown: BBVA Compass
Pitt and Kentucky are both looking for momentum heading into next season
Randall Cobb will have to pick up the slack for suspended QB Mike Hartline
Kentucky is motivated to deliver Joker Phillips a winning season in Year 1
Pittsburgh (7-5) vs. Kentucky (6-6)
Jan. 8, Noon ET (ESPN)
Reason to watch: Two teams that were not happy with how their seasons turned out get one last crack at taking some momentum into spring ball. Sure, Pittsburgh has a lame-duck coaching staff and Kentucky suspended its starting quarterback, but these are still two power-conference teams with hope for the future. The Big East always seems there for the taking, and the SEC East is lacking its typical power players. Pitt hired Mike Haywood to return the Panthers to a BCS bowl -- something Dave Wannstedt was unable to do in six years -- but fired Haywood after his domestic violence arrest and is searching for a new head coach. Kentucky, meanwhile, is wrapping up the first year of the Joker Phillips era with its fifth straight bowl game. A losing record would detract from any feelings of progress made in the bluegrass.
Keep an eye on: Randall Cobb. The first-team All-American will likely take an even larger role in the Kentucky offense with quarterback Mike Hartline suspended after his December arrest. Cobb's job title is wide receiver, but his responsibilities include passing (10 attempts, 3 TDs), rushing (52 carries, 5 TDs), punt returns (26, 1 TD) and kickoff returns (27). Cobb has had the ball in his hands 115 times in addition to his 79 receptions for 955 yards and 7 scores. Look for offensive coordinator Randy Sanders to put Cobb in the Wildcat formation more often to take some pressure off quarterback Morgan Newton.
Did you know: Pitt running back Dion Lewis eclipsed 79 yards rushing every game as a freshman in 2009 on his way to gaining 1,799 yards. This season, Lewis exceeded 79 yards just three times and finished with 956 yards, just over half his freshman total and a number largely due to a 261-yard afternoon at snowy Cincinnati on the last day of the season.
Final analysis: Even without Hartline, the Kentucky offense should be able to score against Pittsburgh. The Wildcats scored over 30 points eight times this season, and Cobb and running back Derrick Locke are explosive players. Kentucky is motivated to push its string of winning seasons to five. With the coaching situation at Pittsburgh, the low-profile bowl setting and an expected sparse Pittsburgh fan base in Birmingham, circumstances are not in the Panthers' favor.
The pick: Kentucky 27, Pittsburgh 17
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline shares his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
Pittsburgh: WR Jonathan Baldwin* -- Pitt has placed one terrific receiver after another into the NFL, and Baldwin will continue that tradition in April. He's a tall, impressive pass-catcher who gets vertical to beat opponents for the jump ball. Baldwin displays minimal speed on the field, but will be an outstanding red-zone/third-down target for any team. He will make himself available for the 2011 NFL Draft. Grade: First-round prospect.
Kentucky: WR Randall Cobb* -- Cobb is another underclassman wide out who is highly considered in scouting circles. He's a reliable receiver with a nose for the end zone and is also a dynamic playmaker running reverses, returning kicks or returning punts. He has the makings of a productive second receiver at the next level. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.