Monday, December 31

The Cotton Bowl: This Season's non-BCS Winner

The Cotton Bowl is a rarity among the bowls; it’s a big deal almost entirely of its own accord. It’s obviously not of BCS caliber (although nobody would be surprised if it got there at some point), but it’s a big deal. There’s a lot of history – all the way back to the Big Eight conference and beyond – and they get a lot of good teams to play in it. As a result, the matchups are normally at worst entertaining; the most recent negative example to that was Tennessee’s dismantling of Texas A&M back in ’04, but that was the exception rather than the rule.

This year doesn’t look to be any different. Thanks to the stupidity of both the Rose Bowl (big surprise) and the Orange Bowl (mild surprise), the Cotton was lucky enough to land a team that’s only lost to one other team all year. The only problem: they lost to said team twice. For some reason, that wasn’t good enough for the Orange Bowl, so they took the team that these guys were the only team to beat all year. We’re not sure how that works, but that’s how it did work. Oh well, it’s not Missouri’s fault people are stupid.

As for the other team, they feature one of the most explosive backs in college football alongside Darren McFadden. Felix Jones is every bit as dangerous as McFadden and he’d be a feature back at about 110 other schools, but he’s relegated to the change-of-pace back behind McFadden, who’s simply a beast. Sure, Arkansas doesn’t have much of a passing game and has occasionally good defense, but it’s hard to say they’re not entertaining.

So while everyone else is sitting around watching the Gator Bowl or Outback Bowl, the Cotton may – once again – feature the best overall game. It’s good to be the fallback sometimes.

Of course, one big ol’ strike on the Cotton Bowl is that they were the first prominent bowl to move to Fox. Now Fox gets to do all the BCS games as only they can (read: worse than NBC’s coverage of Notre Dame). Nobody really wins when that happens, and unfortunately the Cotton Bowl was the first to make the leap. It’s not a huge mark on them, but it is a mark.

Missouri (by Coach Lawrence)

Following a devastating 39-38 choking in the 2006 Sun Bowl, Missouri improved upon their offense with the addition of speedster Jeremy Maclin and made below-the-radar preparations for a Big 12 title run. In the most underappreciated (at the time) game of the season, Mizzou began their season with a neutral-field victory over Illinois, getting out to a huge lead and holding on to win with a late interception. Along the way, the Tigers lost to Oklahoma in Norman and beat everybody they should have. In the regular season finale, they matched up against an unbeaten Kansas and just dominated the first three quarters, gaining a 31-14 lead in the 4th. Passive playcalling made the final score 36-28, but regardless they were the only team to boast of beating the Jayhawks. Alas, in a rematch with Oklahoma they thought they could win, it was the Sooners pulling away to turn a 14-14 halftime tie into a 38-17 domination.

It’s funny how the smallest seemingly irrelevant details can make all the difference. If the Big 12 didn’t have a conference championship game – or hell, if Missouri was in the Big 12 South (never thought I’d say that) – the Tigers would have one loss to Oklahoma and be matched up against Ohio State for the BCS Championship. Of course, Missouri did play against Oklahoma twice, and they lost both times. Game one was winnable in Norman, but the rematch was only interesting for the opening half. Of course, what happened next was beyond mere mental retardation. Missouri finished as the Big 12 runner-up and 6th in the final BCS standings. With the Rose Bowl set to pick their second team, the top four teams had automatic tie-ins and the #5 team, Georgia, was veto-able by the Sugar Bowl who had lost LSU. Okay, #6 Missouri vs #7 USC sounds pretty awesome. Oh, they picked Illinois... #13 and with a loss to the Missouri Tigers. Um, sure, okay take tradition over an awesome matchup. Now it’s up to the Orange Bowl. Missouri and West Virginia are both on the table... WVU being the best choice (despite a lower ranking) and Missouri being a good choice that the Fiesta’s probably pressuring them for. So they take Kansas. Zero quality wins, loss to Missouri, ranked two spots below Missouri. This may be the biggest BCS at-large shafting yet, and go figure that the Rose Bowl (courtesy of Jim Delany) is at the heart of it. But while the Tigers were the losers of all this, the Cotton Bowl was clearly the winner. Arkansas vs Missouri? That’s arguably one of the top three bowl matchups.

Missouri features one of the nation’s top offenses, led by junior quarterback Chase Daniel. Six receivers average over 30 ypg, led by Jeremy Maclin at 78.7. Martin Rucker and William Franklin are both among the nation’s top 5 tight ends. When these two TEs and their 3 starting WRs all line up, everyone’s over 6 feet tall (three stand at 6’5”) which makes it tough for the defense to put bodies on these guys. To compliment the 327 ypg aerial attack, Tony Temple provides power and agility for a ground game that averages 165. Yep, nearly 500 ypg total offense. Scary.

Defensively, Missouri is actually two teams. The athletic, aggressive unit that half Kansas to 7 points through 3 quarters, and the prevent unit who blew the Sun Bowl last year. Seriously in half of their games, they win by about a TD after having late leads in the 15+ category. As I blogged earlier, the split stats tell the tale of a team who plays not to lose when they have the lead. When they are playing to win, though, William Moore is a beast in the secondary with 7 INTs and 9 tackles for loss on the season. Pig Brown’s loss in the 8th game of the season appeared devastating, but the unit hasn’t really given up much more passing ypg since then, especially when you consider that their final two games were against Kansas and Oklahoma.

Keys to Victory:
1) Stay two-dimensional on offense. Despite all that receiving power, Tony Temple brings a balance that really makes this offense go. You can’t drop everyone back when he’s gashing your defense for 4.7 ypc, and forcing the linebackers to play up can lead to monster games for the TEs who are too big for Arkansas’ safeties to cover one on one. (besides that, safety coverage of the TEs leaves Maclin one-on-one with a corner)

2) Get Maclin involved. He’ll be one of the fastest players in this game; a threat to score on deep passes, reverse runs, and kick returns. In addition to the standard passes and special teams, I’d have a special play designed for him in each quarter. Two if they’re working.

3) Blitz the hell out of Arkansas. Giving up the big play isn’t a big deal as your offense should be able to put up good points, and an 80-yard TD puts Daniel & Co back on the field a lot more quickly than a 10-play methodic drive. Stopping first and second down for short gains (or losses) will force the ball into Casey Dick’s hands on 3rd down. lolz.

Arkansas (by Coach Pendley)

Man, if this team could only play defense, they’d be everyone’s Hard-On of the Year. How could you not like a team that played in a killer conference with a great running game and defense? McFadden is a stud and a half, Felix Jones is still one of the top backs in the SEC, and if they could hold teams to under even 24 points on average, these guys would be 11-2 at worst. Instead they’re 8-4 with some completely unexplainable losses (Alabama, mainly). What could’ve been, huh?

So here’s what you already know: both Darren McFadden and Felix Jones are in the top 5 of SEC rushers; McFadden has 1,725 yards and 15 TDs and Jones has 1,117 yards and 11 TDs (that’s with being very limited in the Tennessee game, too). What you might not know – although I’ve been trying to trumpet this for a while now – is that Felix Jones is averaging over 9 yards a carry. That’s including 16 rushes over 20 yards in only 123 carries. McFadden only has 15 rushes of over 20 yards in over 300 carries. Jones is the real big play threat, but McFadden is a beast.

Arkansas’s QB is Casey Dick; he’ll throw it sporadically and hand off to those two backs and Peyton Hillis, who normally blocks for McFadden and Jones but has 300 yards of his own on the year, but he only saw significant time with the ball in three games. However, Hillis is also the primary receiving threat, which …yeah, that’s all you need to know about the Arkansas air attack.

Arkansas’s run defense is virtually non-existent, but their pass defense is vicious. Ignore the yardage totals – teams passed 38 times a game against them. Take a look at the 21/19 ratio and the QB rating under 100; that’s fifth in the nation. However, that comes with a caveat; Arkansas did pad its stats against bad passing teams – although Mississippi State inexplicably went off for 421 yards in the air against the Hogs, but that was at the cost of four picks. Speaking of that, Arkansas has had 4 INTs or more in three different games this year.

Not surprisingly, Arkansas is +9 on the season in turnover margin. What is surprising is that Arkansas doesn’t even keep the ball for 30 minutes a game; maybe their ground game is too good?

Keys to Victory:
1: Don’t go Wildhog crazy. It’s not like Missouri’s 1st team doesn’t practice against a mobile QB on a daily basis anyway, so while the formation is definitely unique, it won’t be as effective as you’d figure. Now, that’s not to say that you don’t want both McFadden and Jones in the backfield for 15-20 plays a game – you definitely want that – but any more than five Wildhog plays will be overdoing it. I think five is going to be a bit much, too; keep the explosiveness on the field but not at the expense of trick packages.

2: Spartan rushing. As in, “THIS. IS. SPARTA.” In short, Arkansas may need 300 combined yards on the ground to win against an excellent Missouri D. The good news is that their defense doesn’t play well to the strengths of Arkansas’s attack, so while they probably will stack the line (I expect Arkansas to see eight in the box on 50+% of their plays from scrimmage), McFadden is strong enough to break tackles to get to the second level and Jones is fast enough to blow by everyone. It doesn’t matter how they get 300 yards, but they’ll need that much. Bonus points for getting that many yards: the ball stays out of Chase Daniel’s hands. Challenge points: nobody’s even topped 200 yards against this Tiger D.

3: Force Daniel to beat you with his arm. Yes, he certainly can do that – he’s the best passer Arkansas’s seen all year – but Arkansas’s run D scares me more than their pass D. Stopping Tony Temple – and WR Jeremy Maclin, who will likely see a few plays with the ball – will be key to force the game into Daniel’s hands. Yes, I know it’s a strange idea, but doing this will basically turn the game into Daniel v. McFadden, which is Arkansas’s best chance to win. (Well, technically their best chance would be a freak snowstorm stranding Missouri at the hotel, but that won’t happen.)