The New Year's Day meeting (1 p.m. ET, ABC) between No. 16 Missouri (10-3) and No. 25 Minnesota (8-4) will mark a rare occasion for both teams.
The Tigers, who also won the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 a year ago, are making back-to-back appearances in a January bowl for the first time 1961. Minnesota hasn’t played a bowl game on the first day of the year since 1962. Both teams pounded their way to unexpected success in the regular season and are looking to spin that momentum into 2015 with a win in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. Here are a few things to watch in Thursday’s game.
You shall not pass: Neither Missouri nor Minnesota topped 200 passing yards per game this season. They combined to pick up 327.6 yards per game through the air, which is less than the top six passing offenses in the FBS averaged on their own. That didn’t stop them from putting together competent offenses this season, though. The Gophers rode senior running back David Cobb to eight wins. Only three backs in the country averaged more carries per game that Cobb. Tailbacks Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy did most of the heavy lifting for the Tigers this year. Murphy scored three touchdowns in the return game to go with his output on offense. Don’t expect to see either team turn this game in Orlando, Florida, into a shootout.
Avoiding mistakes: Without the ability to strike in a hurry, both teams rely on good field position and steady ball control to win games. Turnovers and other field-flipping mistakes could have a big impact on the outcome. Minnesota tied for the eighth-best turnover margin in the country this year with 28 takeaways and 17 turnovers. Missouri wasn’t far behind in 25th. The Tigers lost only 14 turnovers this year.
Two players who could affect field position with big plays are Missouri’s Shane Ray and Minnesota’s Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Ray led all SEC pass-rushers with 14 sacks this year and could force Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner into some bad decisions. Boddy-Calhoun was an All-Big Ten pick after picking up a team-high four interceptions. When the Gophers needed a big play on defense, it was usually Boddy-Calhoun who delivered.
Steckel’s farewell: Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel will be coaching in his final game for the Tigers. After the Citrus Bowl, Steckel will take over as head coach at Missouri State and former Mizzou assistant Barry Odom will take over as coordinator. Odom’s familiarity with the program should make for an easy transition, but Steckel’s players -- especially the linebackers he coaches -- will have trouble saying goodbye to Steckel and said they plan to send him out on a high note.
On the rise: Both programs exceeded expectations this season, remaining in the hunt for a conference title until at least November. The Gophers dropped after losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Missouri made it out of the SEC East before falling flat against Alabama in the league championship game. Although neither has the brand name of some of the more traditional powers in the teams' respective conferences, each has a sturdy foundation and a respected coaching staff. A win in the Citrus Bowl would provide either team with good momentum moving into the offseason.