Ron Cook: Pitt speaks volumes about current bowl system



It seems almost comical now that so many words were spoken and written this anniversary college football season about the injustice of Pitt's great 1963 team, led by All-Americans Paul Martha and Ernie Borghetti, not being invited to a bowl game despite a 9-1 record and a No. 3 national ranking.

It's enough to make you wonder if, 50 years from now, they'll be talking and writing about what a farce it was that Pitt's mediocre 2013 team got to go to a bowl despite a 6-6 record, including bad losses in its final two home games.

Now that's laughable.

Pitt was embarrassed Saturday by Miami, 41-31, on senior day at Heinz Field in a game that wasn't nearly that close. Before the seniors' parents even were in their seats after the pregame festivities, Pitt trailed, 14-0, thanks largely to a Pitt fumble on the opening kickoff by Lafayette Pitts and a Miami block of a punt by Pitt's Matt Yoklic. Things never really got better after that.

Pitt has this not-being-ready-to-play thing down pretty well. In its previous home game Nov. 16, it fell behind North Carolina, 27-3, early in the third quarter. It fought back admirably to a 27-27 tie before losing, 34-27, on a 61-yard punt return for a touchdown in the final minutes.

Can you say awful special teams?

There was no similar Pitt comeback this time.

The Miami players weren't intimidated by the cold weather. Many came out for the early pregame warm-ups without a shirt, a bold statement that had to be noticed by the Pitt team. It was 33 degrees at kickoff and dropped as the late-November afternoon turned into night.

Nor were the Miami players the least bit intimidated by Pitt even though they came in as just 2½-point favorites. Why should they have been? What did Pitt do this season? Sure, it beat Notre Dame Nov. 9 at Heinz Field. But it also lost Oct. 26 at Navy and lost that game to North Carolina.

6-6 is what it is.

Miami had its way with the Panthers, scoring touchdowns on pass plays of 32 and 34 yards and a running play of 73 yards. It also set up touchdowns with a 66-yard pass play and a 32-yard run.

"They clearly beat us," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said.

Can we agree?

Pitt isn't very good.

But this is hardly just about Pitt. It's much more about a bloated bowl system that rewards teams for being mediocre. There are 35 bowls, which means 70 of the 125 Division I schools get to play in a postseason game. That's 56 percent that go. That's ridiculous.

Coaches and officials at Pitt, like those at every other school with five or six losses, will brag about going to a bowl. In Pitt's case, they will brag about going for a sixth consecutive year. But what does that mean? It has become almost harder not to make a bowl than it is to play in one. Shame on 'em in West Virginia, where the Mountaineers are 4-7 heading into their final game today against Iowa State.

Pitt also was 6-6 last year in Chryst's first season and went to the BBVA Compass Bowl, where it was blown out by Mississippi. But, somehow, this 6-6 feels a little worse. The team Chryst took over after the 2011 season was in disarray. Pitt had just lost its coach, Todd Graham, who abandoned the players after one season. Before that, Michael Haywood was fired after just two weeks because of an alleged domestic abuse incident. Before that, Dave Wannstedt was forced to resign after six seasons.

Pitt's program was in absolute turmoil.

Chryst brought much-needed stability and continues to provide it. It's nice to think that will lead to better days ahead for Pitt.

But 2013 was rough.

Chryst refused to look at the big picture or talk about Pitt's progress this season, saying only, "We're going to continue to keep growing. ... I do like a lot of it. I appreciate what [the players] are doing."

Pitt has a couple of special freshmen, wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner. Boyd caught 77 passes this season to break the great Larry Fitzgerald's school record for a freshman. Conner ran hard and has a chance to be a really good player.

But Pitt quarterback Tom Savage was one of 18 seniors honored before the game Saturday. He got all of the playing time this season. That means Chryst will have to break in a new quarterback next season. That is never easy.

Some have suggested that Pitt and other schools with five or six losses turn down a bowl bid, but that's nonsense. The benefit of going to any bowl, even one that's nondescript, is the extra practice time in the days leading up to the trip. That's invaluable for younger players and a great way to get a start on next season.

Pitt clearly needs the extra practice days.

Chryst has plenty of work to do before Pitt becomes more than just another mediocre team.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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