AT&T Cotton Bowl preview

Oklahoma State will be looking for its first bowl victory since 2007 as it tries to upset Mississippi in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Here’s a brief primer.

WHO TO WATCH: Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State

Hunter led the Big 12 in rushing last season, but has struggled with a foot injury in 2009, missing five games and never really recovering the form that enabled him to gain 1,555 yards last season. Keith Toston took over as Oklahoma State’s featured running threat and raced for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the Cowboys have missed a breakaway element in their running game all season. Hunter returned to action late in the regular season, but has looked reluctant to plant and cut the way he did last season. But after his Cotton Bowl practices, he appears to be finally rounding into form. His return against Mississippi should boost the productivity of the Cowboys’ offense and perhaps give him a jump-start for the 2010 season.

WHAT TO WATCH: Can the Cowboys protect Zac Robinson from theRebels’ lethal pass rush?

Oklahoma State’s offensive line has struggled protecting Robinson at times this season, ranking only ninth in the Big 12 in fewest sacks allowed. Rebels’ defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix has developed a productive defense that led the Southeastern Conference and had five different players with at least five sacks during the season, keyed by Marcus Tillman and Emmanuel Stephens with 5.5 sacks apiece. The biggest reason the Rebels have been successful with their pass rush is because their secondary has held up well this season. And with OSU consensus All-American tackle Russell Okung’s status iffy with a tweaked knee, it could be more difficult for the Cowboys to withstand the Rebels’ pressure. OSU must do a better job of protecting their quarterback than late in the season when Robinson’s performance dipped as he was hampered with injuries.

WHY WATCH: The coaching matchup between two former OSU quarterbacks

The association between Mississippi coach Houston Nutt and OSU coach Mike Gundy goes back a long way. Nutt was an OSU quarterback in 1979-80 and Gundy played at the position for the Cowboys from 1986 to 1989. During Gundy’s playing stint, Nutt served as the Cowboys’ wide receivers coach. They have remained close over the years. It will be interesting to see how teacher and pupil compete in the game -- and how they interact after it.

PREDICTION: Both OSU and Mississippi entered the season with a lot of preseason expectations, but struggled to match that hype after midseason slumps. Both teams like to feature their running backs as the Rebels’ Dexter McCluster will be matched against the Cowboys’ versatile duo of Toston and Hunter. Veteran OSU defensive coordinator Bill Young has had nearly a month to cook up a scheme to contain McCluster. But the Cowboys need to find a way to muster enough plays on offense to enable them to win. That’s easier said than done as the Rebels should find a way to persevere late in the game. Prediction: Mississippi 24, Oklahoma State 21.