The 2018 Hyundai Sun Bowl will bring together teams from opposite sides of the country as the Pittsburgh Panthers of the ACC face the Pac-12’s Stanford Cardinal. Game time is set for 2:00 EST on Monday, December 31, at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. The game will be broadcast nationally on CBS.
Oddsmakers list Stanford as 6-point favorites over Pitt. The over/under is set at 52 points. Be sure to check out a full list of this year’s bowl game betting odds.
Stanford experienced a rather up-and-down and somewhat frustrating season in 2018. The Cardinal started the year 4-0, only to lose four of their next five games to take them out of contention in the Pac-12 North. However, Stanford was able to get things turned around and win their final three games to finish 8-4 and 6-3 in Pac-12 play. Nevertheless, the Cardinal are heading to their 10th straight bowl game and the eighth in a row under David Shaw. With Shaw at the helm, Stanford is 4-3 in bowl games.
The Panthers, meanwhile, are back in a bowl game after coming up one win short last season. Pitt did not get off to a good start this season, going 2-3 during the early part of the season. However, they soon rattled off five straight ACC wins, ultimately winning the Coastal division, only to get blown out by Clemson in the conference title game. In the end, the Panthers finished the season with a modest 7-6 record, although four of those losses came against top-15 teams. Of course, Pitt has to win the Sun Bowl in order to secure a winning record. It’s also worth noting the Panthers haven’t won a bowl game since 2013, going 0-2 under Pat Narduzzi.
These two schools have three previous meetings, with Pittsburgh winning two of the three. However, the most recent game between Pitt and Stanford was in 1932, so it’s been a while since the Panthers and Cardinal have crossed paths.
Admittedly, Pitt played a difficult schedule that should have them well-prepared for this game. The Panthers faced bowl teams in 11 of their 13 games, which explains their modest record. However, Pitt also struggled mightily against the upper-echelon teams on their schedule. I don’t think that bodes well for them against a Stanford team that’s probably a little better than their 8-4 record suggests. I like the Cardinal to win by at least a touchdown and cover.
Pitt’s biggest strength this season was on the ground. The Panthers had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Each averaged better than six yards per carry on the season and combined for 20 rushing touchdowns. In short, they are a tough tandem to face, and when either one of them gets loose, the Panthers can be tough to beat.
However, one of Stanford’s biggest strengths this season was their ability to stop the run. On the season, the Cardinal allowed less than four yards per carry on the ground. Even if they can’t completely shut down Pittsburgh’s rushing attack, Stanford should have enough muscle up front to contain the Panthers. If Stanford can hold the Panthers to around four yards per carry on the ground, Pitt’s running game may not be enough.
The Panthers have proven on a number of occasions that they don’t have a Plan B offensively. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett didn’t take the step forward in 2018 that most were expecting. In 13 games, Pickett couldn’t even reach 2,000 yards passing on the season. He did well to limit his turnovers, throwing only one interception in his last seven games. But he had three games in which he threw for less than 100 yards and only one in which he eclipsed 200 yards. Even on a good running team, that’s just not going to cut it.
Of course, while Pitt’s offense is one-dimensional, the same could be said of the Stanford offense. The Cardinal struggled to establish their running game with Bryce Love battling injuries all season. Love isn’t playing in the Sun Bowl, but based on Stanford’s productivity on the ground this year, that’s not as big of a loss as you might think. The Cardinal grew accustomed to having quarterback K.J. Costello carry them this season. More times than not, Costello was able to do that, completing 66% of his passes and throwing 29 touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, the Pitt defense was largely unreliable this season. Again, they played a tough schedule, but the Panthers still allowed 35 points or more six times. When they stepped out of the mediocre ACC Coastal division, where no team had more than seven wins this year, the Panthers tended to struggle defensively. They could be a little vulnerable against the Stanford passing attack.
All things considered, I think Stanford is the more balanced team in this game. If the Panthers don’t get a great performance from their rushing attack, their path to victory is rather narrow. Eventually, the Stanford defense will get a beat on the running game, helping the Cardinal to win by a comfortable margin.