BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Mississippi quarterback Bo Wallace says first-year coach Hugh Freeze has pulled off a total makeover of the team’s culture.
Freeze also has delivered an impressive new look to the Rebels’ record.
Freeze needs a win in Saturday’s BBVA Compass Bowl against Pittsburgh and its first-year coach, Paul Chryst, to cap an unlikely turnaround from last season’s 2-10 finish.
Wallace joined the program as a transfer one year ago. He said he heard stories of problems in the 2011 season that disappeared when Freeze moved to Oxford.
“He totally changed the culture I feel like,” Wallace said Friday. “When I first got here in January, the stories you heard you don’t hear anymore.”
Freeze took over a team that had lost 14 straight Southeastern Conference games. Redshirt freshman linebacker Daniel Nkemdiche said Freeze fix the problems, including selfish play, that led to the losing.
“The biggest difference is we’re like a team now,” Nkemdiche said. “We love each other and we’re starting to treat each other like brothers.
“The closer you are the better you do. ... The selfishness is totally out of the picture. It’s been a total turnaround.”
Ole Miss and Pitt bring 6-6 records into the game, so a winning season is on the line. Each team had important final regular-season wins to become bowl-eligible.
The Rebels beat in-state rival Mississippi State for their first Egg Bowl win in four years. The Panthers closed with back-to-back wins over No. 21 Rutgers and South Florida.
Pitt is playing in its third straight BBVA Compass Bowl. The Panthers beat Kentucky two years ago and lost to SMU last season.
The Panthers are playing their last game as a Big East team. They are moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
Another Big East team headed to the ACC took a bowl upset when Louisville beat No. 4 Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
Chryst said Louisville’s win has no connection to the Panthers’ bowl game.
“I think it has nothing to do with any of the conferences,” Chryst said. “It’s Ole Miss and Pitt. We have a chance to play a good team. It’s those teams playing in a good venue. That’s enough.”
Pitt went through four coaches in a span of 14 months, culminating with Chryst’s hiring in January.
The Panthers used interim coaches in the last two Compass Bowls after Dave Wannstedt was released from his contract and Todd Graham left for Arizona State.
Chryst has had an up-and-down debut season. The Panthers took wins over two ranked teams — Rutgers and Virginia Tech. They almost pulled off a bigger win when they took Notre Dame to triple-overtime before losing.
Low points for the Panthers were losses Youngstown State and Connecticut.
Pitt may face a motivational disadvantage as its plays its third straight bowl game in Birmingham.
“You never know what’s going to be your last football game, so just the opportunity to play another 60 minutes is motivation enough,” said senior center Ryan Turnley.
The Panthers rank among the top 21 teams in the nation in scoring defense and total defense, but they could be challenged against Freeze’s up-tempo attack.
“Certainly we’re going to be who we are,” Freeze said before adding he has seen other up-tempo teams struggle to maintain their pace early in other bowl games.
“We hope we can do it the entire time,” Freeze said. “It’s advantageous for us we feel like. I’m not sure how much of our type stuff is done in the Big East. It doesn’t look like a whole lot of it, but they’ve had a long time to prepare for this game.”
Pitt has strong balance with its 1,000-yard rusher, Ray Graham, and its 3,000-yard passer, Tino Sunseri, who has 19 touchdown passes and only two interceptions.