The good news is that Pitt's football team has been just good enough to get to bowl games in each of the past five years. The bad? They haven't been real good once they're there.
The Panthers have actually been to eight straight bowls and, even though the program has suffered through a lot of mediocrity in that time, haven't fallen below the six-win threshold since 2007. But it's what the team has done lately after the exit of Dave Wannstedt in the postseason that's been frustrating.
Over the past five years, Pitt has won only one of their bowl games. The Panthers, too, have lost in a variety of ways on their way to that 1-4 record.
In Monday's game against Navy, Pitt fell behind 31-7 before fighting back a little to lose 44-28. Last year, the Panthers held an eerily similar 31-6 lead at Houston, but unlike Navy, couldn't keep it before losing 35-34. Pitt narrowly defeated Bowling Green, 30-27, in 2013, but were blown out in 2012 (38-17 to Ole Miss) and 2011 (28-6) to SMU.
There's really not much rhyme or reason when it comes to bowl games. They generally pit two teams that aren't even remotely familiar with each other. On top of that, most have long layoffs from the end of the regular season and when you throw in that most of these kids get to go on trips to various cities, can get into trouble, etc., you just have no idea what to realistically expect. Teams are sometimes without head coaches who are fired or leave for other gigs before finishing out the year. And while I like to think that Pitt can be better prepared since they have so much time to get ready, the other teams also do.
In other words, most of these are generally just crap shoots. But is that really an excuse?
Yes, these games are tossups but they're tossups for everybody, including the opponents. If other teams can find ways to stay focused, game plan, and win games, then so can Pitt. The Panthers have no reason not to be more successful in these games, which are usually supposed to feature two teams relatively equal. Losing a game is one thing, but to be beaten badly as has been the case in three of these matchups in recent years is just not a good look. The fourth loss, a terribly blown lead, is arguably even worse.
Whatever the problem, however, Pitt needs to do better in bowl games. They're not only costing themselves an extra win in the world of college football where every one counts, but I have to think that fans will be less interested in traveling through the years if the team just keeps losing them. The team had a chance to really reward the many fans that made the trip and also give them a reason to show up to a postseason game down the road. Such a flat performance was certainly discouraging to at least some. My guess is that some will think twice about sacrificing holiday time again to make another similar trip.
The half-cup-full fan might be inclined to point out that Pitt should have won the Houston game last season and that things might not be as bad as they look. But that loss wasn't only part of the problem, the Panthers have been so bad in the other three games that it symbolizes an issue.
And while it's also worth pointing out that Pitt has had interim coaches in two of those four losses, I'm not sure how much that can be used as an excuse, either. Playing under interim coach Phil Bennett in 2010, the Panthers beat up on Kentucky, 27-10, after all. And just last year, Houston made its epic comeback with an interim coach as well. While it's not ideal, teams can (and do) win without their head coaches.
There's a lot of optimism around the football program as there should be. The team won its most regular-season games since 2009 and there have been some good strides made in recruiting under new head coach Pat Narduzzi. But there's no doubt that the Panthers have a lot of work to do and that includes winning bowl games.