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January 7, 2011

BBVA Compass Bowl: Kentucky vs. Pitt

No one will confuse the BBVA Compass Bowl -- formerly the PapaJohns.com Bowl, formerly the Birmingham Bowl -- with a premier postseason game.

For Pittsburgh and Kentucky, though, any game is a relief.

This is especially true for Pittsburgh, which pushed out coach/alum Dave Wannstedt after the Panthers went 7-5 overall and 5-2 in the league. Though the Panthers were tri-champs, they lost to the other tri-champs, Connecticut and archrival West Virginia. Pitt hired Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood in December but fired him last week after he was arrested on a domestic violence charge in South Bend, Ind. Thus, Pitt is on its second coaching search in a month.

Furthermore, after initially deciding he would coach the team in the bowl, Wannstedt changed his mind earlier this week, handing the team to defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.

Kentucky is in less dire a situation than Pitt, but the Wildcats have had some off-field issues, too. Starting quarterback Mike Hartline has been suspended for the game after he was arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. The Wildcats also have undergone a staff shakeup (although minor compared to Pitt), as two assistants were hired in December.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Kentucky rush offense vs. Pittsburgh rush defense: The Wildcats got RB Derrick Locke back from a shoulder injury for the final two regular-season games, which takes some of the pressure off all-around offensive threat Randall Cobb. Locke rushed for 816 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight games. Pittsburgh may have welcomed the long layoff before the bowl: The Panthers allowed 177 rushing yards per game in their last four regular-season games. Edge: Pittsburgh.

BBVA COMPASS BOWL

Kentucky (6-6) vs. Pittsburgh (7-5)
WHEN: Jan. 8, noon.
WHERE: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
TV: ESPN (Mike Gleason will do play-by-play, with John Congemi as the analyst).
THE LINE: Pitt by 3.5
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Kentucky 2-5, Pitt 4-5.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Kentucky 91st, Pitt 40th.
BCS RANKINGS: Neither team is ranked.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the ACC.
COACHES: Kentucky - Joker Phillips (first bowl); Pitt - Phil Bennett (interim coach, first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: We wouldn't go so far as to say this is an appetizer for Saturday's NFL wild-card games; it's more like a late breakfast -- one that has grown cold. Pitt is looking to salvage something from a disappointing season. Kentucky went 2-6 in the SEC, but the Wildcats still have a shot at their fourth bowl win in the past five seasons. Keep an eye on the two star wide receivers -- Randall Cobb of Kentucky and Jonathan Baldwin of Pitt.
KEY STATS: Kentucky was 4-1 this season when Derrick Locke rushed for at least 100 yards in a game and 2-5 in games when he didn't. Pittsburgh allowed only one running back to top 100 rushing yards this season, Connecticut's Jordan Todman (222 yards).
Kentucky pass offense vs. Pittsburgh pass defense: QB Morgan Newton started the second half of last season and competed for the starting job this year. But he lost out to Mike Hartline, and he attempted only seven passes in 2010. He returns to the starting lineup with Hartline suspended. Having more than a month to prepare -- as opposed to a week during the regular season -- should help Newton. Cobb is one of the nation's most underrated and most dangerous multi-threat players. He caught 79 passes for 955 yards and seven touchdowns; he also rushed for 401 yards and five touchdowns and threw three touchdown passes. Despite losing star DE Greg Romeus in the opener, Pitt continued to be an effective pass rushing team with Jabaal Sheard and Brandon Lindsey combining for 19 sacks. But Sheard recently had elbow surgery and is out. Edge: Kentucky.

Pittsburgh rush offense vs. Kentucky rush defense: Pittsburgh was inconsistent running the ball all season despite a talented tailback duo in Dion Lewis and Ray Graham. Some of the ups and downs were because of the play of the line. Kentucky was next-to-last in the SEC in rush defense, but it features a second-team all-conference linebacker in Danny Trevathan (130 tackles). Kentucky allowed a rushing touchdown in all but one game this season (Akron) and at least two in seven consecutive games. Edge: Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh pass offense vs. Kentucky pass defense: The inconsistent Pitt rushing attack certainly didn't help first-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri (or perhaps it was the other way around). Pitt has an elite receiver in Jonathan Baldwin, but the Panthers struggled to get him the ball consistently. With lineup changes throughout the front seven, Kentucky's secondary struggled to find a rhythm. UK was one of the worst teams in the SEC at rushing the passer. No one on the team had more than three sacks. Edge: Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh special teams vs. Kentucky special teams: Pittsburgh's Dan Hutchins is one of the nation's top punters (45.1-yard average, 40.1-yard net). He's also a solid kicker, making 16-of-23 field-goal attempts this season. Kentucky has its own special teams dual threat in Cobb, who averaged 7.7 yards on punt returns and 23.5 yards on kickoff returns. Locke's return has boosted Kentucky's kickoff return team. Pittsburgh allowed a punt-return and a kickoff-return touchdown this season. Edge: Even.

Kentucky coaches vs. Pittsburgh coaches: Pittsburgh players had said they would be motivated to win one last game for Dave Wannstedt, but he announced earlier this week that he wouldn't be coaching the game after all. Kentucky is motivated to finish with a winning record. Both programs are undergoing staff changes, but at least Kentucky still has its head coach. Edge: Kentucky.

X-factor: How will the coaching changes affect the teams? Wannstedt isn't the only absence. Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti won't coach in the bowl game after taking the same job at Rutgers. Tight ends coach Brian Angelichio will call the plays for Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Kentucky added former Cincinnati coach and veteran defensive assistant Rick Minter as co-defensive coordinator last month. The changes in leadership could lead to wrinkles on the field -- or confusion.

Pittsburgh will win if: Lewis and Graham must run the ball consistently. It doesn't really matter which one does or if they split time doing it. Pittsburgh went 5-0 when rushing for 150 yards or more as a team and 2-5 when failing to do so. One or both needs to take advantage of Kentucky's porous rush defense to open up the passing game for Sunseri.

Kentucky will win if: Locke is the key for UK. Locke's performance will be especially magnified by Kentucky's quarterback situation.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Pitt 26, Kentucky 23
Tom Dienhart: Pitt 25, Kentucky 24
David Fox: Kentucky 21, Pitt 10
Mike Huguenin: Pitt 33, Kentucky 27
Steve Megargee: Pitt 24, Kentucky 17

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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