The Sun Bowl gets us the postseason version of the Haves and the Have Nots as UCLA faces Pittsburgh in El Paso this week.
UCLA (9-3) vs Pitt (8-4)
Friday December 30th; 2pm eastern
Sun Bowl Stadium; El Paso, Texas
First, we have to pay due respect to this game. The Sun Bowl is tied with the more famous Sugar Bowl as the second-longest bowl game in the country. The first incarnation of this postseason game was played in 1935, making it second only to the Rose Bowl for college football bowl game longevity.
It is in its fourth year with the sponsorship from Tony the Tiger. Let’s face it; while we are not prone to promote the sponsors of bowl games as they tend to come and go, who doesn’t get excited about a little Frosted Flakes in their day?
As to the haves and have-nots, both teams went through the season with elite-level talent at multiple positions. Only one of them has those players showing up for the bowl game this week.
The Panthers finished tied for second with Duke in the ACC Coastal Division behind UNC. They won the last four games of the season against Syracuse, Virginia, Duke, and Miami. They put up a lot of points during the season, averaging 30.8 points per game, good for 45th in the country. The defense only gave up 23.4 points per game. The run defense was the best in the ACC.
Having said all of that, here is the thing to know about the players who were so instrumental in putting up those stats. Many of them will not be in El Paso for the game. Quarterback Kedon Slovis played his first year at Pitt after transferring from USC and threw for 2,400 yards. He is now in the transfer portal again. Israel Abanikanda was one of the best running backs in the entire country all season long. He rushed for 1,431 yards, 20 touchdowns, and was an All-American several times over. He has opted out of the game as he declares for the NFL Draft.
That defense that was so significant was led by defensive lineman Calijah Kancey. He was merely one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the country, an All-American, and a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy as the best defensive player in the country. Officially, he has opted out, but the truth is he had post-season surgery on his arm and would not have been medically cleared to play anyway.
The Panthers offense is likely to be run by quarterback Nick Patti. He had nine completions for 79 yards this season.
They Just Did Make It
They were almost missing a few more players. As players got to go home for the Christmas holiday and then meet in El Paso, three Panthers nearly didn’t make it. Samuel Okunlola, Jake Frantl, and Hudson Primus were stranded in Dallas with the massive amount of flight cancellations. But they ran into UTEP basketball coach Joe Golding and his family, who had the same predicament. The Goldings had been in Dallas to see family and their flight back to El Paso was canceled. They wound up renting a vehicle and making a big carpool with the three Pitt football players to get to El Paso. The family Golding had been in Dallas to see was his sister, Kate…Kate Dykes, wife of TCU football coach Sonny Dykes.
Now that we have seen the team with all of the opt-outs and transfers, it is clear that UCLA is the team with the haves.
This was the best season in the Chip Kelly era at UCLA. He had a losing record in each of his first three seasons in Westwood before hitting 8-4 in 2021. They qualified for the Holiday Bowl in San Diego against North Carolina. The game was canceled when UCLA had a Covid outbreak in the days leading up to the game.
The Bruins average 39.6 points per game with a truly balanced offense. Running back Zach Charbonnet was thought to be headed to the NFL after last season. The transfer from Michigan came back for another season. All he did with the opportunity was lead the country in yards from scrimmage, (rushing and receiving), with 168 per game. It was good enough to make the Football Writers Association of America All-American team.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson is in his fourth season as the full-time starter at quarterback. It was his best season of the bunch, by far. He threw for just under 3,300 yards, 25 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. It was the 69.8 completion rate that was eye-popping. He added another 631 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
The Bruins’ defense is still suspect. It has been one of the worst in the country during the Kelly era with Jerry Azzinaro guiding it for four years. This year it is slightly “better.” It is now 88th in the country under new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern. He has had health issues recently and has not been coaching during games. He is in El Paso and is expected to run the defense this week.
The three Bruins losses came against Oregon, Arizona, and USC. That loss to UA cost them a shot at the conference title.
Both teams have a history in this game. Pitt has been here five times. The last time the Panthers played here was a 14-13 loss to Stanford in 2018. UCLA was last here in 2013 with a 42-12 win over Virginia Tech.