Bowl eligibility will be achieved by one of the two teams entering the Carrier Dome on Saturday, as Syracuse and Pittsburgh both sit at 5-5 on the season. The Panthers have had an up and down season but do have some playmakers that could hurt the Orange..
Pittsburgh runs a traditional pro-style offensive scheme. They do not rely on creativity or strange formations, but rather execution in their straightforward sets. The Panthers try to keep things balanced by mixing up the run and pass. The strength of the offense is in the passing game their two playmaking wide receivers.
They run a lot of two tight end sets. It mirrors the Wisconsin style of offense with multiple backs, power running game and playaction passes.
Tom Savage is the quarterback for the Panthers. Syracuse fans may remember him when the Orange sacked him nine times in a 2009 victory over Rutgers, where Savage started his career. Four years and two schools later, the senior is now leading the Panthers.
Early in the season, he showed the "panic under pressure" tendencies that led him to lose favor within the Rutgers program. Since then, Savage has stepped up as a solid quarterback who directs the offense well. Six of his seven interceptions on the season were in his first four games.
Over the last six games, he has thrown eight touchdowns and one pick. He looks for the deep ball quite frequently, but has become skilled at going through his progressions. He has a strong arm with solid accuracy.
The running backs are paced by junior Isaac Bennett and freshman James Connor. The two take about 90% of the team's meaningful carries, with scrambles by Savage and the occasional reverse mixed in.
Bennett is a smart, physical runner who does his damage between the tackles. He lacks big play ability as he does not possess breakaway speed. Connor is the more dynamic threat. He's a natural runner with good burst through the hole. He simply lacks experience as a freshman. The two will split carries and Pitt will ride the hot hand at times.
The two starting receivers are Devin Street and Tyler Boyd. On the season, the two have combined for 107 catches, 1,668 yards and 13 touchdowns. Street stands at 6-foot-4 but has good speed down the field. Boyd has burst onto the scene as a true freshman, and can make plays all over the field. Both are dynamic playmakers who can score from anywhere on the field.
Boyd and Street are excellent route runners with strong hands that will test the Orange secondary.
With the Syracuse defensive backfield thin due to injury, the Orange catch a bit of a break here. Behind Boyd and Street, the Panthers lack a lot of productivity. Kevin Weatherspoon will play out of the slot, but is not a huge threat in the passing game. He has had one or fewer catches in a game eight times this season. Weatherspoon is a smaller receiver that can play a Wes Welker type role at times.
Manasseh Garner and J.P. Holtz are talented tight ends that can test the opposition over the middle. However, with the focus of the passing attack going towards Boyd and Street, these two have not been as involved this season. Manessah is the bigger threat, however, with solid hands.
In the Trenches
The Pittsburgh offensive line has struggled throughout the season, especially in pass protection. Tom Savage has been sacked 37 times already this year. The strength of the line is the right side, starting with center Artie Rowell. He is a solid, smart player who is responsible for the protection calls.
Right guard Matt Rotheram is a road grading interior lineman with a mean streak. He is physical and has long arms to keep defenders at bay. Right tackle T.J. Clemmings is a converted defensive end who is athletic. He will pull at times but has been inconsistent in pass protection.
At left tackle. Adam Bisnowaty is a redshirt freshman who has had an up and down season. He has potential, but struggles against good pass rushing defensive ends. Cory King and Ryan Schlieper have both seen action at left guard. King is the more consistent player, but can beat by quicker interior defensive lineman.
Dorian Johnson is a backup tackle who rotates in at times and plays in big formations. If either starting tackle is out, Johnson is the first man up.
As a whole, the offensive line has struggled with speed and blitz pickup. They are vulnerable, but had one of their better performances of the season against North Carolina last week.
Pittsburgh runs a vanilla 4-3 scheme that does not blitz. They rely on the front four to generate pressure and get into the backfield. It is a traditional scheme that uses a lot of zone coverage in the defensive backfield, and relies on execution rather than mixing up their looks.
In the Trenches
Along the defensive line, tackle Aaron Donald is the best of the bunch. He has had a very solid year as a disruptive force in the middle of the line. He collapses the pocket and takes up space against the run. Tyrone Ezell is the other starting tackle. He is a solid player, but not as disruptive as Donald.
Darryl Render is a backup tackle who has been becoming part of the rotation more and more as the season has progressed.
Bryan Murphy and David Durham are the starting defensive ends. Neither are exceptional pass rushers, but both are strong players who make a lot of plays against the run. The front four attacks the run very well, but have struggled against running quarterbacks.
The Back Seven
Much like the defensive line, the Pittsburgh linebackers have made their mark in run support. In pass coverage, however, they have struggled. The Panther backers are not asked to blitz.
Todd Thomas is a former safety who has good speed for the position and is extremely athletic. He is strong, has good footwork and makes plays against the run. Thomas has natural linebacker instincts and has shined since moving to the position.
Anthony Gonzalez is the other man on the outside and is a former quarterback. He also has excellent athleticism and good speed. He is not as physical as Thomas and has struggled with consistency.
In the middle is senior Shane Gordon. He moves well but is the least athletic of the group. He may possess the most strength, however, and is solid at attacking the run game between the tackles as a downhill linebacker.
The starting corners are Lafayette Pitts and K'Waun Williams. Both have the skill set to play man well, but the scheme forces them to stay in a zone. That has hurt the Panther pass defense all season. Both have struggled in zone and have only two interceptions between them.
Jason Hendricks and Ray Vinopal are the starting safeties. Both are ball hawking types that are better in coverage than in run support. They are not smaller safeties who are not overly physical.
Matt Yoklic is a senior punter with a strong leg. He is averaging over 43-yards per kick, and helps Pittsburgh flip field position. Chris Blewitt is the kicker with a strong and accurate leg. He is 4-4 on kicks over 40-yards, and 9-11 on the season.
The kick returners are LaFayette Pitts and Tyler Boyd. Both are solid athletes that can be a threat of a big return. Boyd especially with his combination of elusiveness and speed.
Kevin Weatherspoon is a solid punt returner who is more of a playmaker than Ritchy Desir, but not a big time, game breaking returner.
Pittsburgh has some talent that will test some of Syracuse's weaknesses. But their inconsistent play and weaknesses on both sides of the ball can be exploited by the Orange. This is a battle of two evenly matched teams who are battling for bowl eligibility. It should be a good one inside the Carrier Dome on Saturday.
PantherDigest.com's Tony Greco contributed to this report