The big 2014 Cotton Bowl breakdown: Who leaves Jerry World with a top-10 ranking?

Brett Deering

Two old conference mates face off in the Cotton Bowl with a potential spot in the top 10 on the line. Has Missouri's defense recovered from its Auburn emasculation? Can Oklahoma State's offense account for the sheer volume of Mizzou's skill-position weapons?

Old friends, winter companions, the old men … lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun … the sounds of the city sifting through trees … settles like dust on the shoulders of the … old friends. -- Simon and Garfunkel

Missouri and Oklahoma State played each other 45 times as conference rivals before Mizzou's move to the SEC, occupying a relatively similar space in the national landscape and rarely managing to be particularly good at the same time. In their five decades as conference mates, the two schools managed to finished ranked in the same season just three times (1997, 2008, 2010), though two of those three have come since head coaches Gary Pinkel and Mike Gundy assumed their current roles.

These programs are on sustained highs of sorts; Mizzou has won at least 10 game in four of the last seven seasons, has finished above .500 in eight of nine years, and has reached its conference title game three times in seven seasons. OSU, meanwhile, has won 50 games in five years, has spent parts of six consecutive seasons ranked, and very nearly won its second conference title in three years this fall.

There is apparently room for both of them on the national stage, even if (or because) they're in separate conferences, no longer fighting head-to-head against each other on the field and over certain recruits (as much). But in 2013, there's room for only one of them in the end-of-season top 10. (Technically, OSU could win, knock Missouri out, and finish 11th or so, but you know what I mean.)

In a series that featured some serious momentum swings -- Mizzou won 10 of the first 11 conference battles between the two, then OSU won 15 of 20, then Missouri won seven of nine -- OSU wrapped up the conference rivalry with three wins in four tries, including an upset of No. 3 Missouri in Columbia in 2008.

The numbers ever-so-slightly favor the Cowboys to make it four of five, likely sneaking up to about 10th in the polls with a win. Can Missouri make up the statistical ground it lost when its defense was getting demolished by Auburn's option offense? There could be a No. 5 or No. 6 final ranking in for the Tigers if they do.

Next year, the Cotton Bowl Classic basically becomes the fifth major bowl, alongside the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar, and Orange and a fellow newcomer, the Chick-fil-A Peach. But in its last iteration outside of the club, it gets a pretty major matchup.

How they got here

Oklahoma State's season to date

It's impossible to overstate how awful Oklahoma State looked against West Virginia on September 28. The Cowboys had begun the season 3-0 with a salty, experienced defense and enough offense to get by an iffy early slate (Mississippi State, UTSA, Lamar).

But the Cowboys fell to the Mountaineers, 30-21, in a cascade of wind and dropped passes and missed assignments. I know the danger in overreacting to a single poor performance, but I almost couldn't help it. OSU was so bad that I wrote the 'Pokes off in the Big 12 title race, even at just 0-1. The new coordinators weren't working out, the talent had dissipated, and maybe Mike Gundy should have taken one of those jobs he was offered last winter.

Of course, the Cowboys followed this up by winning seven consecutive games in increasingly dominant fashion. Despite ongoing shuffling on offense -- Clint Chelf, the starting quarterback against Mississippi State who was quickly yanked after playing poorly, replaced J.W. Walsh as the No. 1 guy; Desmond Roland usurped Jeremy Smith as the No. 1 running back; and the offensive line got shuffled daily -- the defense settled in, and the offense did enough. OSU survived Kansas State and TCU at home and dominated Iowa State and Texas Tech (still ranked No. 15 at the time) on the road. They suffocated Kansas, blew out Texas in Austin, and wrecked Baylor's national title dreams with a 49-17 destruction on a cold night in Stillwater. The team that lost to West Virginia was going to win the Big 12.

And then it didn't. The 'Pokes lost at home to Oklahoma, a double-digit underdog, 33-24, sending Baylor to the Fiesta Bowl and Oklahoma to the Cotton. This isn't the worst landing spot in the world, but it was still a letdown considering how far OSU surged in November.

Missouri's season to date

With the college football world paying pretty close attention, Mizzou chose a really bad time to not only test its depth dramatically, but fail that test. The reward? An offseason full of "They weren't ready" talk, not to mention a little bit of "Pinkel on the hot seat" chatter. The good news, however, is that while first impressions seem like a really, really big deal, they only matter until the second one. If the Tigers go 12-0 this fall (and they won't), the story line isn't going to be "Yeah, but they sure did struggle in 2012." Mizzou can erase the bad taste of 2012 with a happy 2013. Will they?

I wrote that in my 2013 Mizzou preview. The Tigers came much, much closer to 12-0 than I could have imagined. They came within the width of an upright, basically.

It's difficult to sneak up on people in the SEC, but Gary Pinkel's Mizzou squad pulled it off. The Tigers looked solid in putting away Toledo, Indiana, and Arkansas State by an average margin of 41-23 in non-conference play, but when conference play began in Nashville, the Tigers slowly left no reason for doubt.

You could write off a 51-28 win at Vanderbilt with, "Yeah, but Vandy's not that great." You could write off a 41-26 win at Georgia with, "Yeah, but Todd Gurley was hurt." You could write off a 36-17 win over Florida with, "Yeah, but Jeff Driskel was hurt." But after a while, the evidence was pretty overwhelming.

Mizzou fell to South Carolina in an overtime heartbreaker and was forced to win out to take the division title. The Tigers did so. They thumped Tennessee and Kentucky by a combined 79-20. They went to Oxford and beat Ole Miss by two touchdowns. And on Senior Night in Columbia, they clinched a spot in the SEC title game with a comeback win over Texas A&M. Their strong defense was carved up by Gus Malzahn's machine, 59-42, but they headed into bowl season ninth in the AP poll; No. 5 and 6 have already lost, and No. 7 still could.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Oklahoma State 10-2 13 11 -1.5 28 8 70
Missouri 11-2 8 17 22 12 79
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
OSU Offense 44 18 47 25 65 27 120
Mizzou Defense 16 32 24 11 63 67 54
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
OSU Offense 80 83 87 114 2 8 3
Mizzou Defense 21 74 58 50 57 68 54
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Mizzou Offense 37 17 33 22 28 23 77
OSU Defense 21 12 13 20 25 17 74
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Mizzou Offense 7 12 47 13 73 46 94
OSU Defense 13 19 24 7 114 111 110
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
OSU Special Teams 11 117 108 44 38 6
Mizzou Special Teams 20 85 37 63 79 72

Oklahoma State's biggest advantages

This is the best run defense Missouri has seen. Missouri has a well-balanced offense in 2013; the Tigers favor passing on standard downs and often lean on the run on passing downs. First-and-10 is a passing down for this offense, and third-and-five is a running down. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson wants to spread the field with big receivers, split you up the middle with little running backs, and stretch you from sideline to sideline and goal line to goal line with the pass. When one thing works, it all begins to work.

That's all good, but Oklahoma State ranks 13th in Rushing S&P+. The best defenses Missouri has faced in this category are Ole Miss (No. 17), Florida (No. 22), and Georgia (No. 23). Granted, Mizzou rushed for better than five yards per carry against Florida and Ole Miss (leading rusher Henry Josey went for 231 yards in 33 carries in these two games), but despite the dissonance associated with conference affiliation (aren't SEC defenses supposed to occupy all of the top 14 spots in this category?), OSU is a step ahead.

The Cowboys get a push with the line and swarm to the ball with three play-making linebackers: Caleb Lavey, Shaun Lewis, and Ryan Simmons, who have combined for 31 tackles for loss and defensed 14 passes. OSU is light at the end position, but James Castleman and Calvin Barnett are active tackles, and the back seven is incredibly fast and disciplined. Josey, Russell Hansbrough, and Marcus Murphy run behind perhaps the most improved offensive line in the country, but Mizzou will probably need to pass pretty well to open up the run game a bit.

Clint Chelf stays upright. Missouri has what we'll call one of the more well-known pass rushes in the country. Michael Sam was a unanimous All-American with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, but for wide swaths of 2013, he wasn't even Mizzou's best defensive end. That honor bandied at times between Markus Golden and perhaps Shane Ray before settling on Kony Ealy for most of November. These four players combined for 52.5 tackles for loss and 29 sacks.

OSU, however, neutralizes pass rushes as well as anybody in the country. Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh were sacked a combined 10 times in 434 pass attempts. 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. OSU will do what it needs to do to keep pressure off of Chelf, who improved dramatically late in the season before a setback against Oklahoma.

Missouri's biggest advantages

Jamie Squire, Getty

The Mizzou defensive line could dominate in a different way. Oklahoma State's offense is pretty well-balanced as a whole, leaning slightly toward the pass (which is good, because its pass is better than its run) but finding success with the run at times. They rushed for 342 yards against Iowa State, 286 against Mississippi State, 281 against Texas Tech, and 200 against Oklahoma. But the line was shaky in this regard, and while Mizzou's pass rush has gotten all the attention, it's Mizzou's run defense that has been key to the Tigers' success. (This has been true for most of the 2013 season no matter how well Auburn ran the ball against Mizzou.)

Missouri ended up with 101 tackles for loss in 2013, and 63 of them were non-sacks. Andrew Wilson takes on fullbacks with fervor, the tackles hold up, and Golden and Sam in particular slice into the backfield well. Assuming there is not residual damage from how definitively Auburn destroyed this front seven, the Tigers should find success against the OSU line and backs Desmond Roland and Jeremy Smith. (Chelf is also relatively mobile.) And Chelf has shown that he can be pressured into bad or quick decisions at times even if he's not getting sacked. Make OSU too reliant on the pass, and you have slowed the Cowboys down dramatically.

Balance, baby. Oklahoma State is fast and mature, aggressive and cautious, and to move the ball on the Cowboys, you have to be able to do a little bit of everything.

But Mizzou can indeed do a bit of everything. Though better at passing, the Tigers showed tactical flexibility at times. They rushed two-thirds of the time against Tennessee and Ole Miss but trended toward 50-50 against Florida, Auburn, and Kentucky. They force you to take away many options and are led at any time by one of three running backs or one of three big receivers (Dorial Green-Beckham, L'Damian Washington, Marcus Lucas). All-America cornerback Justin Gilbert can only cover one of the three, and if the linebackers are wrecking shop too close to the line, Mizzou is prepared to attack the edges with the run or the empty spaces with the slant.

This may be one of the best defenses Missouri has faced in 2013, but the Tigers have the requisite balance, and the sheer volume of potential weapons, to do damage if they find a weakness.

The Tigers also have an offensive line that produces better rankings in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate than what OSU's defense delivers. At worst, this neutralizes a potential OSU advantage; at best, it becomes an advantage for Missouri.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

The winner of this game will be poised for some serious overreaction. For OSU, Chelf is a senior, as are receiver Tracy Moore, fullback Kye Staley, and two current starters on the offensive line; on defense, four of the five positions in the middle (defensive tackles, middle linebacker, safeties) will lose starters next year, and Gilbert is gone as well. Still, with a strong performance from someone like Desmond Roland or receivers like Josh Stewart or Jhajuan Seales, combined with a nice overall game from the defense, could be enough to make Oklahoma State the favorite in the Big 12 next year.

Baylor will experience a little bit of transition, and Oklahoma is still a virtual unknown in a lot of ways, so a positive end to the season might prompt a lot of people talking themselves into the 'Pokes.

Missouri, meanwhile, will return Dorial Green-Beckham, all three running backs (probably, at least -- Josey could still elect to go pro), three starters on the offensive line, all defensive tackles, and some key defensive playmakers like Markus Golden, Shane Ray, and linebacker Kentrell Brothers, and play-preventer Braylon Webb. Plus, Maty Mauk is the presumptive starting quarterback, and he went 3-1 in place of injured quarterback James Franklin in October and November.

If DGB goes off again like he did in the SEC title game, or if the running game clicks against a good run defense, the Tigers could end up either a favorite or co-favorite again next year in the SEC East. South Carolina, after all, must replace Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, and others, and Georgia still has all sorts of question marks on defense.

Granted, both of these teams could still get plenty of solid hype, win or lose, but we know how overreactions and last impressions work.

Summary

F/+ Projection: OSU 26, Mizzou 23
Win Probability: OSU 62%

Following the humiliation Missouri's defense received in the SEC title game, the Tigers' rankings got bumped down just enough to give OSU a bit of an edge. But OSU has been just volatile enough this year that it's difficult to get a read on this game overall.

The Cowboys looked like one of the best teams in the country against Texas and Baylor but couldn't get out of their own way against Oklahoma. Missouri, meanwhile, was pretty consistent until its problems with the Auburn option in Atlanta, so in some ways this is a battle of volatility versus stability.

Though these two teams are rarely good at the same time, this one feels just about right: two old friends facing off in a nearby locale, with a likely top-10 ranking on the line. It will be decided by line play, balance, and, as always, bounces. It teams with the Orange Bowl to create the final doubleheader of the college football season (well, sort of -- the two games overlap pretty significantly), and what a duo of games this could be.

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