Pitt football heads to Alabama for third BBVA Compass Bowl in a row

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It has almost become a winter tradition, like Christmas carols or the first snowfall.

Pitt will once again wrap up its season at the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.

The Panthers accepted a bid to the bowl Sunday for the third consecutive season. This year, they will face Mississippi at noon Jan. 5 on ESPN.

"We've been given a great opportunity to play a quality program like Ole Miss," first-year Pitt coach Paul Chryst said in a statement Sunday. "I know they finished the season strong and looked impressive in winning the [rivalry] Egg Bowl against Mississippi State. We are appreciative of the City of Birmingham and the BBVA Compass Bowl for giving us the chance to play one more game this season."

It may not be an ideal situation going to the same bowl game for the third season in a row, but Pitt players and coaches and administrators seem determined to make the most of it.

"While it is unusual to play in the same bowl three years in a row, we are excited to be facing a traditional program like Ole Miss," Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said in a statement. "This game is held in a great football city and our hosts have already discussed giving our team some different experiences on this trip."

On more than one occasion this season, it looked as if a bowl bid might not be in the cards. The Panthers started out 0-2 and had to win their final two games -- including a victory Nov. 24 against then-No. 21 Rutgers -- just to reach the six wins required for bowl eligibility.

"It feels great," senior receiver Mike Shanahan said after Pitt's 27-3 win Saturday against South Florida. "Ending on a winning season, hopefully we can do that with this next game. Another opportunity to play, show what we're all about and spend more time around the guys, most importantly, and the coaches."

Pitt will play in a bowl game for the fifth consecutive year, but this one will have a slightly different flavor than the past two trips to Birmingham. Pitt beat Kentucky, 27-10, in 2011 and lost to SMU, 28-6, a year ago, but did so with interim coaches at the helm. Dave Wannstedt was forced to resign after the 2010 season and Todd Graham left for Arizona State after the 2011 campaign.

On both occasions, the Panthers spent their 15 bowl practices working on a system that would be scrapped when the new coaching staff arrived the following year.

This season, Chryst will get a chance to work some younger players into his system and, in some ways, get a jump-start on spring practices.

"The last two years, we've been going into these practices and the offense didn't repeat into spring ball. It was kind of a waste of these practices," senior quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "This is huge for the young guys and everybody to get into the offense."

Chryst said that while he was looking forward to the practices, he also saw the bowl game as a reward for this year's seniors, who have gone through three of the coaching changes during their five years at Pitt.

"I'm happy for, certainly, the seniors," Chryst said Saturday. "Their window's closing and they've earned the right to extend it. And that is pretty cool."

While all the Pitt players who spoke Saturday were excited to finish their season with a bowl game, not all of them were too enthused with a third consecutive trip to Birmingham.

"At the end of the day, we might complain about it, but it's another bowl game," running back Ray Graham said. "We're .500 right now, another win would help solidify this season, so that's basically what it is."

Graham did say that, despite the bowl destination, he was ultimately glad to extend his career for one more game.

"It feels good to go back out there one more time with the Pitt Panthers," Graham said. "To get to run out of that tunnel with my boys one more time before I take my talents to the next level, and I'm happy about this."

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Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com or on Twitter: @SWernerPG.


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