Bowl games are carefully designed to prevent regular-season rematches, and especially geared toward matching schools of different conferences against one another. When a high-octane league is paired with one known for its defense and physical play, like say, the Big 12 vs the SEC, the potential entertainment value goes up.
But I’m not sure Missouri vs Oklahoma State in the Liberty Bowl is going to feel a lot like an out-of-conference game. It might play out more like a conference game.
Which is to say it could feel more like a Big 12 “NASCAR” race than anything else.
Missouri is a dynamo on offense, featuring star upperclassman QB Drew Lock. Unlike a lot of NFL-caliber student-athletes whose team is playing in a non-New Year’s Six bowl, Lock will be on hand in Memphis when the Tigers meet the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State may be the most frustratingly average program in America for college bowl gamblers to wager on, as Mike Gundy’s 2018 squad is 6-6 straight-up and 6-6 against the spread. But the explosive offense from Stillwater is anything but average.
Will either school’s defense make a last stand on New Year’s Eve? Las Vegas thinks it will be the 8-4 program from the SEC East.
Who: Missouri Tigers vs Oklahoma State Cowboys
When: Monday, December 31st, 3:45 PM EST
Where: Liberty Bowl, Memphis, TN
Lines: Mizzou (-8) vs OSU (+8) / O/U Total: (74)
The last time the Missouri Tigers were truly tested on the gridiron was on November 10th when Vanderbilt visited Faurot Field in Columbia. Lock had the luxury of handing off to Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree III, who rushed for a combined 214 yards. But the senior was intercepted twice and only passed for 253 yards, a paltry performance in Mizzou’s 4-wides-and-go system. Thanks to a defense that pressured and sacked Kyle Shurmur, the hosts prevailed late in a 33-28 victory.
Not every SEC opponent was able to challenge the Black & Gold for 4 quarters. In the last 4 weeks of the season, Mizzou thrashed Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas by a combined billion points. Lock hasn’t had the most prolific season from a pure numbers standpoint, but he’s the Tigers’ talisman and emotional leader, and has dangerous targets at WR like Emanuel Hall and Johnathon Johnson. Senior Terez Hall has been a force at linebacker.
Yet at the same time, a number of losses showed how far the improving program still has to go to reach the top echelon of the Power-5. A scrum with Alabama was competitive for only 1 quarter, and Missouri lost to South Carolina in mid-season. The defense has such a low floor that Missouri State of the FCS was able to lead Mizzou 21-20 after 15:00 in the season opener.
As for Oklahoma State’s defense, will there ever be a truly outstanding, consistent D in Stillwater?
Short answer: Nope.
The hype this August was the same as ever. “Look out now,” said Cowboy partisans. “We always have a great offense, but this year there’s gonna be a defense too!”
But whether it’s Gundy’s up-tempo offense which produces opposing possessions almost as prolifically as it does points, a recruiting base that is slanted toward the offensive side (as many are in the YouTube era), or plain old lack of institutional focus, Oklahoma State remains a team that is trying to win games 55-31 instead of 28-14.
Led by QB Taylor Cornelius and his favorite target, sophomore WR Tylan Wallace, OSU’s high-tempo attack can still keep pace with the best in the college game. A powerful OL puts the unit in 2nd down and short often, and a 38-35 October win over Texas showed what the team is capable of. Wallace had an absolutely phenomenal outing against the Longhorns, catching 10 passes for 200+ yards and 12 points.
However, OSU failed to stop even the most average Big 12 offenses en route to losing 5 of its final 7 contests. The 48-47 loss to Oklahoma in the annual “Bedlam” rivalry was hard to swallow, but the 35-31 loss to Baylor better encapsulates the squad’s frustrations. The ground game was healthy but Cornelius was inaccurate too often, and the defense gave up 244 rushing yards to the Bears.
It’s easy to imagine this contest as a dramatic 2nd-half shoot-out that comes down to Lock’s ability to lead the 2-minute drill for Mizzou. He’s had to mount comebacks against less-talented teams in 2018, such as Purdue and the Tennessee Volunteers.
But I’m thinking that the point spread is actually a little bit too tight, since this is a match-up of a football program on the way up (Missouri) vs a team that might be starting to experience diminishing returns under head coach Gundy. OSU could play a good game and cover, or play a good game and lose by 10 points. It’s also possible that the Cowboys will look like garbage, as they have at times over the 2-5 stretch that includes a 31-12 loss to Kansas State. If Oklahoma State has a bad day, Missouri should win by 2+ touchdowns without breaking too much of a sweat.
It’s not a sure thing, but it’s a % play. Take Missouri to cover (-8) in Memphis.