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Pitt vs. Houston Armed Forces Bowl Game: Preparing for the Panthers' final game of the season

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Wait, Pitt is still playing football this season?

Even though we're fully in the midst of the college football bowl season, I'll admit that Pitt's upcoming game against Houston kind of snuck up on me. Since the announcement of the game, we were hit pretty hard with the news of Paul Chryst and Steve Pederson exiting along with the hiring of Pat Narduzzi. We've been going full steam ahead on all of that stuff, so you'll excuse us for temporarily pushing the bowl stuff to the side.

Hopefully you've got Friday off of work since the game is at noon on ESPN. When news broke of Pitt's opponent and destination, I wrote a good bit about it (you can see the bowl game page with articles here). Because of that, I'm not going to regurgitate much of it. Still, with the game on Friday, I thought it was worthwhile to at cobble together an updated preview of sorts.

FWIW, the Panthers opened up as two-point favorites (one early site had it at three) but as of Monday night, that line had gone to three, despite the fact that Pitt is going to be playing a virtual road game, facing Houston in Fort Worth. The travel would be manageable for local Pitt fans (that have the benefit of being off on Friday) with direct flights into DFW. It's a decent destination as well, so a nice turnout wouldn't be completely surprising. Still, you can expect to see a lot of red in the stadium and Pitt fans will surely be outnumbered.

Houston's athletic director talked a little about that:

"We hope to pack the stadium with the color red and as everybody knows, our whole recruiting base, it's the state of Texas and we have the majority from the state of Texas," Rhoades said. "So it makes it easy for their parents and families to attend the game."

A focal point of the game is that both teams will be playing under interim head coaches as Houston fired Tom Levine and Paul Chryst left Pitt for the Wisconsin job. The Panthers will be coached by Joe Rudolph while defensive coordinator David Gibbs will coach Houston.

I mentioned this earlier but keys for both teams could be slowing down the running backs. Pitt has All-American James Conner, of course, but Houston's Kenneth Farrow had a nice year as well, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Don't get me wrong - Houston can and will throw the ball, as they do almost every year. But they finished the season in the bottom half of the FBS in passing, so this isn't one of those Case Keenum offenses where they'll sling the ball all over the yard.

That, of course, will be dependent on Pitt's secondary making plays, so then again ...

Jokes aside, Houston's offense simply isn't as explosive as they've been in years past and that will help. The Panthers' defense still needs to make an appearance, but might not have their hands as full as they would in facing the Cougars in other seasons.

One thing of note regarding Houston's offense is that they improved significantly once Greg Ward, Jr. took over at quarterback near the middle of the season. Over the final seven games, they didn't score any fewer than 24 points and averaged nearly 31 points per contest. In the first five, they were scoring under 28 and were held to seven by UTSA and 12 by Central Florida. There just hasn't been the type of inconsistency from them in the second half of the season.

Ward is a dual-threat kind of guy and like Chad Voytik, is mobile. He has nearly 500 rushing yards on the season and six touchdowns. The flipside is that he's also prone to turnovers, with six interceptions in his last four games, including a whopping four against Tulane. Voytik, on the other hand, has been playing well lately, and has six touchdowns with only one interception over his last five games.

You look on paper and this a game the Panthers should win. Their 6-6 record vs. Houston's 7-5 is more impressive since it came against better competition. Pitt has better players, including several NFL locks like James Conner, Tyler Boyd, and T.J. Clemmings. But there's a list of reasons a mile long that should keep Pitt fans from being too confident as well.

There's the coaching issue with all of the turmoil. Houston, of course, is going through the same exact thing, but you never know what teams will be able to react better to it. Pitt is also going to be in a road game environment.

And while Houston's offense has thrived against weaker competition, the Panthers' defense has been underwhelming at times, allowing a total of 147 points in consecutive games against Georgia Tech, Duke, and North Carolina. There have been other defensive breakdowns, too, including the first half against Virginia and the second half against Iowa. Heck, the Panthers even gave up 25 points to a 4-8 Florida International team that averaged only 23 on the season. It's just been a very coin-flip type of year for that unit.

Cautiously, however, I like a Pitt win. James Conner has put this team on his back all season long and I expect him to take advantage of another stage when all eyes will be on him. Plus, I just think that finishing above .500 is something that would mean a lot to these guys. Getting that seventh win would be a nice way to carry some momentum over into next year.