Two former conference foes will battle in Jerry World for a final top-10 ranking, as No. 9 Missouri (11-2) faces off against No. 11 Oklahoma State (11-2) in the 2014 Cotton Bowl. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET tonight on FOX.
Truthfully, both teams had their sights set on a larger trophy than the one they'll be playing for tonight. Each squad had BCS bowl ambitions entering the final week, but fell flat—the Tigers against championship game-bound Auburn, and the Cowboys against rival Oklahoma in Bedlam. These are two high-quality squads that are among the best teams in non-BCS bowl games, and betting lines have the game at nearly a dead heat.
If both offenses are clicking, we should see fireworks. James Franklin is back from his midseason shoulder injury, and the Tigers offense put up 42 points and 534 total yards in the SEC championship. Clint Chelf and Oklahoma State are coming off their second-lowest point production of the year, but still average just a shade under 40 points per game.
Here are the keys for each team to salvage a disappointing end to the regular season and earn a Cotton Bowl victory.
Pressure Clint Chelf
Harassing the opposing quarterback is always important, but Missouri's defense may not stand much of a chance unless Michael Sam and Co. can disrupt the Pokes' quick read-and-react passing game.
Oklahoma State has wavered between a run-heavy and pass-heavy identity all season, based on their available personnel, but have recently trended towards the latter tendency. What's more worrisome is that the Cowboys do not have a single receiver they force the ball to, but rather a plethora of targets that stretch sub defenses and exploit one-on-one matchups, per Bill C. of SB Nation:
The ball distribution here is lovely. Three guys see about one standard downs target per game, three see two to three, and Josh Stewart sees about four. And the production levels are incredibly similar. This is a read-and-react offense. Chelf reads the defense, fields the snap, and throws the ball for about an eight-yard gain. This game will test Mizzou's nickel formation, most likely, and put a lot of pressure on players like John Gibson, Ian Simon, Aarion Penton, and Duron Singleton to do well in isolated situations.
The Tigers are among the most prolific teams in the country in generating pressure, as their 38 total sacks ranks 11th in the nation. Oklahoma State's offense is dangerous because of how multifaceted they are, and disrupting their timing is the best way to force them into long down-and-distance situations.
Maintain Offensive Balance
Oklahoma State is arguably the best run defense Missouri has seen all year, as the Cowboys concede just 3.5 yards per carry on the ground, the 16th-best mark in the country. That will make for tough sledding for a Missouri offense that generally likes to surprise teams by running on passing downs out of shotgun draws.
Fortunately, the Tigers are balanced enough to overcome Oklahoma State's greatest defensive strength. Missouri only passed on 44.1 percent of their plays for the season, but have shown the capability to turn to the air when needed, like in victories against Florida and Kentucky.
Granted, the Cowboys defense is significantly better than the Gators or Wildcats were, but James Franklin has completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes just once all year. In their quarterback's final game, the Tigers might have to ride Franklin's right arm to victory.
Establish the Screen Game
Remember how I said Missouri needed to rush Chelf? The Tigers' supremely talented front seven will have its ears pinned back all game, and if the Oklahoma State offense finds itself in too many passing downs, it seems unfeasible that the Cowboys will shut down Missouri's pass rush all game playing straight up.
That's why a few sneaky counterpunches might be necessary to exploit Missouri's aggression and keep the Cowboys offense humming.
The Pokes already emphasize getting the ball out of the quarteback's hand quickly, but it's even more imperative to get their playmakers in space tonight against a Missouri defense that was gashed when Auburn operated in space. As Bill Connelly of SB Nation notes, the Tigers have had trouble defending screens in recent weeks, something that could be deadly tonight:
The offensive line, shaky in run blocking, is more than good enough to protect Chelf/Walsh for long enough to find an option in this relatively quick passing offense. Bubble ... halfback ... tunnel ... the Cowboys will screen you to death if you let them, and despite not blitzing very often, Mizzou has been vulnerable to screens at times.
If Missouri's cavalcade of pass rushers are in straight-ahead attack mode all game, that is trouble for the Cowboys. Oklahoma State must work around the Tigers' playmakers, and changing the defense's rhythm should keep them off-balance and guessing.
Contain James Franklin
Oklahoma State will not concede 6.8 yards per rush like Auburn did. So while the Cowboys can reasonably expect to contain the Tigers' backs, dual-threat quarterback James Franklin is a whole different matter.
The Cowboys linebackers must be brilliant tonight, for the defensive line is severely undersized in comparison to a Missouri offensive line that has generally pushed around the opposition this season. We can reasonably expect Oklahoma State to employ a "spy" linebacker to keep track of Franklin, and pocket containment of the Missouri quarterback will be crucial.
If Oklahoma State makes Franklin and the Tigers offense one-dimensional, the secondary will have a golden opportunity to win the game.
All-American Justin Gilbert will blanket one of Missouri's big receivers, most likely Dorial Green-Beckham, and is capable of generating game-changing plays. Gilbert is not a one-man show either, as the Cowboys defense has limited opposing quarterbacks to 6.2 yards per attempt—a mark that is 10th-best in the country and tops in the Big 12.
Missouri and Oklahoma State are two evenly matched teams with enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to stress the opposition. Expect plenty of big plays, not only from the offenses, but the takeaway-heavy defenses. Both squads are among the 20 best teams in the country at forcing turnovers.
Ultimately, the game will come down to the turnover battle and if either defensive front sevens can control the trenches and disrupt the timing-based opposition. Though this will likely be a back-and-forth game, I'll take the Tigers to come out on top.
Prediction: Missouri 33, Oklahoma State 30