BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- On their third consecutive trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl, you could forgive the Pitt Panthers for experiencing a sense of deja vu. They're staying at the same hotel, practicing at the same facilities and, for the most part, experiencing the same bowl week events.
There is one glaring change this time, and it makes all the difference in the world for Pitt.
For the first time in Birmingham, the Panthers have a coach in place who will be their coach next season. All the work they do in bowl preparation will carry over to spring practice and, eventually, the 2013 season.
"I mean, it's night and day," center Ryan Turnley said. "The practices are severely more intense. Everybody's into it, everybody has a focus about them. Before, there was really no voice of the team or anything like that. Now, everyone's excited about it and everyone's focused."
In previous years, the focus largely was away from the game. Though there was initially some concern that could be the case again, Pitt coach Paul Chryst and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez quickly quashed any rumors of Chryst returning to the Badgers.
As a result, all Pitt's attention can be directed at Mississippi.
"I think it's actually been pretty fun," senior wide receiver Mike Shanahan said. "I think coach Chryst, this whole time, has been stressing that we're coming down here to win and I think everybody here, that's the goal. That's why we're down here."
Last year, the Panthers only had a handful of coaches to oversee practices in Birmingham. Understandably, many of those coaches were more concerned with finding their next job than preparing Pitt for a bowl game.
The Panthers have practiced in pads every day since arriving Tuesday. They only practiced in jerseys and shorts last season, but Chryst has placed an extra emphasis on keeping the team in pads this season, holding full-contact practices over the Panthers' off weeks, as well.
BBVA Compass Bowl
Pitt (6-6) vs. Mississippi (6-6), 1 p.m. today, BBVA Compass Bowl, Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala. Mississippi favored by 3.5.
- TV, Radio:
ESPN, KDKA-FM (93.7).
Coming off a 27-3 win Dec. 1 against South Florida. ... Is making its fifth consecutive bowl appearance and third BBVA Compass Bowl appearance in a row. The Panthers beat Kentucky, 27-10, in 2011 and lost to SMU, 28-6, last year. ... QB Tino Sunseri has not thrown an interception since the third game this season against Virginia Tech. His streak of 270 interception-free passes is the longest active streak in Division I-A. ... Has a 3,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher on the same team for the first time in Sunseri and running back Ray Graham. ... Tied with Ohio for the fewest turnovers in Division I-A with eight. ... Is 12-2-2 all time against current SEC teams but has never played Mississippi.
Coming off a 41-24 win Nov. 24 against Mississippi State. ... Making first bowl appearance since the 2010 Cotton Bowl. ... Sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace ranks fourth in the SEC in total offense with 267.2 total yards per game. ... All six losses came against teams currently ranked or receiving votes in the AP Top 25. ... Is ranked in the top 15 in Division I-A in tackles for loss per game (7.7) and sacks per game (2.8). ... Has won four consecutive bowl games, and eight of its past nine.
- Hidden stat:
Pitt is 6-1 when scoring first this season, 0-5 when the opponent scores first.
"Coming from last year, we're thinking, 'All right, it should be fun,' " safety Andrew Taglianetti said. "But coming into practice and hitting each other, getting banged up, we're like, 'Oh boy.' But I think come Saturday, it'll definitely pay off for us."
At the coaches news conference Friday, Chryst was quick to downplay any notion this game could serve as a major springboard into next season. If it did, he noted, he would have been sitting next to sophomores and juniors rather than seniors Turnley, Shanahan and safety Jarred Holley.
For Pitt's seniors, the game today is a chance to build a foundation for the Panthers as they move into the ACC next season under Chryst.
"Six-and-7 is a lot different than 7-6," Taglianetti said. "Not only for me as a senior -- I think it'd be great to go out with a win -- but to kind of just give these younger guys a lot of confidence and a lot of good feelings going into next year, especially in spring ball and stuff."
With a win today against Ole Miss, Pitt would create some positive momentum heading into the offseason for the first time in three seasons.
"Yeah, I'm definitely going to be excited moving into spring practice," junior cornerback K'Waun Williams said. "Just to see how the team's going to react, how we're going to feed into the coaching system now that we've been in it a whole year, how we're going to embrace it. Pretty much get off to a good start in the ACC."
Next season can get a kick start for Pitt today against the Rebels. For that reason alone, this trip to Birmingham is completely different.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.