Compass Bowl breakdown: Ole Miss

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The Game: Ole Miss vs. Pittsburgh

What’s at stake: The cherry on top of a remarkable turnaround
There are not too many fan bases around the country that are more excited to be in a bowl game than Ole Miss. Can you blame them? After two very bad seasons, Hugh Freeze has energized an entire fan base and program in just his first season, taking a 2-10 club and transforming them into a 6-6 bowl-eligible team that could have easily been 9-3. Close losses to Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU could have easily gone the other way, as all three games were lost late in the fourth quarter. Ole Miss’ turnaround is already spectacular, but winning the Compass Bowl and beating Pitt would be icing on the already delicious cake that is Ole Miss football. It’s Ole Miss that has all the momentum in the state of Mississippi heading into prime recruiting season, something that has been lacking over the last few years.

Why Ole Miss will win: Playing their best football now
Ole Miss started off 2012 thumping bad teams. Many were quick to point out the level of competition, though, but the fact that the Rebels’ offense looked superior to the last few years was extremely hopeful. If you look at the last two games against LSU and Mississippi State, it’s easy to see why Ole Miss is playing their best football now, though. They put up numbers against LSU and should have beaten the Tigers in Death Valley, and they trounced in-state rival MSU in surprising fashion – not that it was a fluke beating MSU, but the way Freeze and the players executed the game plan was incredible. The 2012 Rebels are peaking at just the right moment, and that wave of momentum will carry over into the bowl game.

Why Ole Miss will lose: Pitt creates too many turnovers
The good news for Ole Miss is they are playing their best football now. The bad news is so is Pitt. And when Ole Miss is at their worst, the offense is turning it over. Specifically, Bo Wallace must play turnover-free football. Ole Miss is -1 on the season in turnover margin, and they have turned it over nearly an SEC-leading 27 times in 12 games. Wallace has been erratic, and he’s thrown 15 interceptions. The team that protects the ball better and limits turnovers will have the upper hand. Neither team is good enough to overcome multiple fumbles or interceptions.

3 players Ole Miss must stop: QB Tino Sunseri, RB Ray Graham and TE Mike Shanahan
Pitt isn’t that explosive offensively, but the one thing they do excel in is turnover margin. Tino Sunseri doesn’t turn the ball over – only two interceptions all year – and is efficient in the passing game. He’s thrown for 3,103 yards and 19 touchdowns. He’s not Aaron Murray or Tyler Bray, but he’s efficient enough to beat the Rebels. The lifeblood of the Panthers’ offense is Ray Graham. Graham is back after a knee injury suffered last season, and he’s turned in 222 carries for 1,042 yards and 11 touchdowns. Ole Miss must play well against the run. Sunseri’s top target in the passing game is tight end Mike Shanahan. He’s big, physical and athletic, and he can make tough catches in traffic.

3 players for Ole Miss who must play well: QB Bo Wallace, WR Donte Moncrief and LB Denzel Nkemdiche
Wallace has been the heartbeat of the up-tempo offense. Yeah, he’s looked questionable at times, but he’s the main reason – other than Freeze – for the massive turnaround. Wallace has thrown for 2,843 yards and 19 touchdowns, to go along with his 15 interceptions. But he’s also been very productive on the ground, rushing for 363 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. When Wallace is on, the offense is clicking, and he must carry over the strong play he showed in the last few games. Wallace’s main target is future NFL star Donte Moncrief. He’s nabbed 60 catches for 948 yards and 10 touchdowns. Wallace-to-Moncrief will be a combination Pitt will learn to hate throughout the game. The Rebels’ defense is very young and undersized overall, and freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche plays with a massive chip on his shoulder and really gives the defense an identity of toughness. Nkemdiche hits like he’s 240 pounds. He’s tallied a team-high tackles (78), tackles for loss (12) and second in sacks with three.

MVP prediction: RB Jeff Scott
Jeff Scott has had a solid season, nearly reaching the 1,000-yard plateau with 828 yards and six touchdowns. He’s only notched three 100-yard rushing games in ’12, but he should have some big opportunities against Pitt’s defense. Scott has proven he can take it to the house on any play, but he’s diversified his game by turning into a better receiver. He’s caught 20 passes for 175 yards and one touchdown.

Photo Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

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