MISSOURI TIGERS (10-3) vs. MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS (8-4)
JAN. 1, 1 P.M. ET, FLORIDA CITRUS BOWL, ORLANDO, FLORIDA (ABC)
Season highlights: Grit, determination, perseverance: Whatever you want to call a team’s instinctive will to win, Missouri clearly has it. Underrated for basically the entire season, the Tigers found a way to win the SEC East. Down the stretch, they won one-possession games against Texas A&M, Tennessee and Arkansas. The key to those wins and the rest throughout the season is the play of the defensive line. If there’s been one overwhelming bright spot for coach Gary Pinkel, it’s been his terrific tandem of defensive ends, Shane Ray and Markus Golden, as the two have combined for 22 sacks.
Season lowlights: That game against Indiana is haunting. There was no way Missouri was supposed to lose at home to a nonconference opponent that couldn’t beat Bowling Green. That loss, along with a blowout loss at home to Georgia, highlighted all that was wrong with the Tigers this season: A porous secondary, inconsistent play at quarterback and an offense that goes three-and-out 33.3 percent of the time, the second-highest rate in the SEC.
Player to watch: It all rests on the arm of quarterback Maty Mauk. The trouble is, he’s an all-or-nothing passer, as his 11 interceptions tied for the worst in the SEC during the regular season. But when he’s on, boy, is he fun to watch. A true gunslinger who can make something out of nothing, he finished the regular season with 30 completions of 20 yards or more. He even ran for 336 yards.
Motivation factor: When isn’t Missouri feeling slighted? The past two seasons, no one thought the Tigers had any business competing for a top spot in the SEC East, but lo and behold, they’ve won the division each year. After getting blown out in the SEC title game last year, Missouri came back in the bowl game and beat Oklahoma State by double digits. Could we see a repeat?
-- Alex Scarborough
Season highlights: Carrying the Little Brown Jug back to Minneapolis and knocking off Nebraska on the road were perception-altering wins for Jerry Kill’s program this season. The comeback victory at Nebraska was all the more impressive considering star running back David Cobb missed most of the second half. Watching Cobb set the school’s single-season rushing record was also a big moment for a Gophers program that has had its share of talented backs. He’s currently at 1,548 rushing yards on the season.
Season lowlights: An unexpected loss to Illinois in late October killed a four-game winning streak and cut into the growing school of thought that the Gophers could contend for the Big Ten West crown. The team went on to lose respectably against Big Ten championship contenders Ohio State and Wisconsin. For a program on the rise, those losses still feel like more of a highlight than lowlight this year.
Player to watch: We’ve already hit on Cobb and his big numbers, so keep an eye on defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun. The All-Big Ten performer has four interceptions this season and has broken up eight total passes. When Minnesota has needed a big play this season, Boddy-Calhoun has delivered. His forced fumble near the goal line to seal the win at Nebraska was probably the biggest of the year.
Motivation factor: Kill’s staff built a lot of momentum this season while riding Cobb for most of their eight wins. While the Gophers have shown marked improvement, a bowl loss would leave them with the same 8-5 record as a year ago. Winning is a way to validate the steps forward they have taken on paper and keep the positive vibes going into the offseason.
-- Dan Murphy