December 22, 2014

Pittsburgh and Houston can be forgiven if they have other things on their minds than their matchup at the Armed Forces Bowl.

Both teams won't have the coaches who guided them in 2014 when they meet for the first time in 17 seasons Friday in Fort Worth, Texas.

Paul Chryst left Pittsburgh (6-6) after three seasons to take over his alma mater, Wisconsin. Once Chryst departed, chancellor Patrick Gallagher decided to get rid of athletic director Steve Pederson, who guided the school through conference realignment into the rebuilt ACC.

Pederson had a rocky tenure as AD, forcing out Dave Wannstedt following an 8-5 season in 2010 and hiring Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood. Haywood's tenure lasted 16 days before he was fired following a domestic incident at his home, resulting in the hire of Todd Graham from Tulsa. Graham posted a 6-6 year in 2011 before leaving for Arizona State.

The school hired Pat Narduzzi as coach on Christmas Eve after he spent the past eight years as the defensive coordinator for Michigan State.

The turmoil has taken the focus off Pittsburgh's seventh straight bowl appearance. The Panthers were chosen for this game to replace Army, which had a conditional invitation if bowl eligible but went 4-8.

Joe Rudolph, the Panthers' offensive coordinator, has been named interim coach for this contest.

"Joe is highly respected by our players and staff," Gallagher said. "He has been an important figure in our program's growth and will provide our student-athletes the support and leadership they need as they prepare for their final game."

Houston (7-5) fired coach Tony Levine on Dec. 8. Levine went 21-17 in three-plus seasons and signed a new five-year contract in May, though a second straight 5-3 mark in American Athletic Conference play sealed his fate.

Defensive coordinator David Gibbs has been named interim coach for this bowl.

''If you're good at your job,'' Gibbs said, ''you realize that if you go out there and coach your butt off and your kids play hard and play good, you have a better chance of getting a job than if your kids go out there and lay down and get beat up on national television.''

Gibbs expects to stay on as the defensive coordinator for new coach Tom Herman. The former Ohio State offensive coordinator was hired Dec. 16 as Levine's permanent replacement, though Herman will remain with the Buckeyes through their playoff run.

The Cougars are in this bowl for the fourth time, and the proximity to campus is something that has vice president for athletics Mack Rhoades excited.

"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. So again, we are excited to be part of it."

The next Pitt coach could be inheriting a favorable situation. One of the youngest rosters in the country with 80 freshmen and sophomores includes running back James Conner, who was named the ACC player of the year after piling up 1,675 yards to finish fifth in the country and a school-record 24 touchdowns to finish in a tie for third.

Sophomore Tyler Boyd posted his second straight 1,000-yard receiving season with 1,149 to rank second in the conference. He's the primary target for Chad Voytik, a dual threat at quarterback with 2,011 yards passing and 15 touchdowns along with 426 rushing yards and three scores.

Houston's defense will pose a stiff challenge, yielding 19.5 points per game for the nation's 11th-best mark.

The offense is guided by converted receiver Greg Ward Jr., who led the Cougars to a 4-3 mark over the final seven games after taking over as the starting quarterback for an ineffective John O'Korn. Ward threw for 1,612 yards and nine TDs and ran for 428 with five scores in his starts.

These teams split two previous matchups in 1996 and 1997.

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