NCF Nation: Cotton 0902

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Take that, Big 12 apologists.

Better yet, Hotty Toddy, Gosh almighty to you long-suffering Ole Miss fans.

 
 Tim Heitman/US Presswire
 Friday's AT&T Cotton Bowl victory capped a triumphant first season for Houston Nutt in Oxford.

Houston Nutt and the boys did the SEC proud ... real proud.

In the most impressive performance yet by an SEC team during the bowl season, Ole Miss dismantled No. 7-ranked Texas Tech 47-34 in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, putting an exclamation point on Houston Nutt's first season in Oxford.

They might have been ready for him to hit the road in Arkansas, but Nutt could run for election right now in Mississippi and win just about any office.

He's done an exceptional job in getting the Rebels to believe only a year after they went winless in the SEC.

The Rebels (9-4) now go into the offseason riding a six-game winning streak and with as much momentum and excitement surrounding the program as there's been in the last three or four decades.

In 2003, they were coming off a 10-win season, but Eli Manning was on his way to the NFL.

With this bunch, you get the feeling the future is only going to be brighter, especially with quarterback Jevan Snead playing the way he did Friday. The sophomore returned to his home state of Texas and passed for a career-high 292 yards and also threw three touchdowns.

And while Texas Tech did finish with 34 points, the Ole Miss defense came after quarterback Graham Harrell and the Red Raiders' offense from all sorts of angles.

Simply, it was the kind of speed, power and strength on defense Texas Tech wasn't used to seeing in the Big 12. In the SEC, it's what you see every Saturday.

The Rebels also got the big play defensively when Marshay Green took an interception back 65 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter, stretching Ole Miss' lead to 31-21.

Still, it was the Ole Miss offense that took this game over with 515 yards of total offense (223 rushing yards) and kept the ball away from Harrell and the Texas Tech offense.

It also tells you a little something about the Rebels with the way they so calmly fought back from an early 14-0 deficit.

Deep down, they knew they were going against a defense that wasn't going to be able to stop them. Then again, do they stop anybody defensively in the Big 12?

Dexter McCluster, erasing the bitter memory of some crippling fumbles this season, was brilliant for Ole Miss. The diminutive speedster rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries and also caught six passes for 83 yards.

"One heartbeat," the Ole Miss players were yelling after it was over in the venerable Cotton Bowl Stadium.

It's a heartbeat that will no doubt beat a little harder as they await the 2009 football season in Oxford.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

It may have been a surprise to most of the country.

 
 Vladimir Cherry/US Presswire
 Texas Tech didn't have any answers for Jevan Snead, who threw for a career-high 292 yards and three TDs in the Cotton Bowl.

But Mississippi might have proved a point about Southeastern Conference domination and the fallacy of Big 12 defenses when it lined up and whipped Texas Tech in the trenches to claim a convincing 47-34 victory in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.

And the score might not have done justice to just how overpowering the Rebels' performance was. After spotting Tech a 14-0 lead in the first 10 minutes of the game, the Rebels blew the game open by erupting for 38 of the next 45 points.

The 30,000 Mississippi fans who attended the final Cotton Bowl game were doing the singing at the end, serenading the Red Raiders with chants of "overrated" and "SEC! SEC!"

It would be hard to argue with them after Tech's uninspired bowl performance, which put a sour ending to a 11-2 season which began with 10 straight victories.

After the early struggles, Mississippi's underrated offense took control and kept the ball for most of the first half. It paid dividends in the second half when a gasping Tech defense down several starters in the secondary simply couldn't keep up with the Rebels.

Tech's struggles were understandable considering starting cornerback L.A. Reed didn't dress due to an arm injury. Darcel McBath was removed for much of the game because of a hamstring injury. And Jamar Wall left the field limping in the first half.

McBath snagged his seventh interception of the year (tied for most in the country) and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown, which boosted Tech's early lead to 14-0. But his replacement, Jordy Rowland, was blistered after McBath was hobbled.

It paved the way for elusive Dexter McCluster to have a career game with 98 rushing yards and a team-best 83 receiving yards. Quarterback Jevan Snead did the rest as the Rebels seemingly gained confidence after their early struggles to convert five-straight third downs in the first half -- leading to three touchdown drives -- that shifted the game's momentum.

The struggling performance ended the record-setting career of Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, and likely will be Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree's last game.

Harrell passed for a Cotton Bowl record 358 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first player in college history to top 5,000 yards in two different seasons. And his touchdown binge enabled him to claim the FBS career record with 133 touchdown passes, jumping past Colt Brennan's previous record of 131.

But he also threw two interceptions caused by a relentless Mississippi blitzing defense. Rebels defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix repeatedly tormented Harrell with those blitzes, which came shooting through the Red Raiders' wide offensive splits.

The Rebels also did a strong job of tackling, keeping Tech from turning short passes into long gains. In fact, the longest Tech play of the game was a 44-yard scramble by Harrell on the last play of the first half that ended just short of the Mississippi end zone. Tech had only two passes of 20 yards or more.

That defensive pressure appeared to discombobulate the Red Raiders. That was best illustrated midway through the third quarter when Harrell unsuccessfully tried a quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-4 in Tech territory. The play came up more than two yards short after a rare Red Raiders defensive stand had given them some momentum.

Crabtree was hobbled by an ankle injury that plagued him for most of the second half. He produced three catches in the first half, but only one after that and finished with a career-low 30 receiving yards.

Tech's struggling performance casts doubt on the Big 12's credibility, despite record-breaking offenses which piled up yards and points all season. It will be up to BCS participants Texas and Oklahoma to reclaim some of that respect in the conference's remaining bowl games.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Who to watch: Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell will finish his career as the top quarterback in school history. The Cotton Bowl will be his first game back since he underwent four hours of surgery on his non-throwing hand, having 17 pins and two plates inserted to heal nine separate breaks in Tech's regular-season finale against Baylor. He can punctuate his career with two significant statistical accomplishments in Friday's game. Harrell needs 253 passing yards to become the first player in NCAA history to pass for 5,000 yards in multiple seasons. And with two touchdown passes, Harrell will surpass Colt Brennan's career record of 131 touchdown passes for the most in FBS history.

What to watch: The Red Raiders' potent offensive attack will be tested by an underrated Mississippi defense that emerged late in the season as one of the nation's finest. The Rebels' defense was the key to a late five-game winning streak where opponents were limited to 8.2 points per game. Tech's offensive line usually has its way with Big 12 defenses thanks to wide splits and Harrell's quick release, but that might not work as well against a swarming Rebels unit that led the nation in tackles for losses and ranked fifth in sacks.

Why to watch: Tech became almost an afterthought in the Texas-Oklahoma controversy for the South Division title after their blowout loss at Oklahoma. But the Red Raiders still hold a share of the three-way title and can culminate their finest season with a bowl victory. A triumph will likely boost them into their first top-10 finish in school history. The game also will have much sentimental meaning for old-school traditionalists as it will be the last played at the Cotton Bowl's Fair Park location before moving to the new Dallas Cowboys' stadium next season.

AT&T Cotton Bowl preview

January, 2, 2009
1/02/09
7:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

A quick preview of today's AT&T Cotton Bowl between Ole Miss (8-4) and Texas Tech (11-1):

WHO TO WATCH: He didn't get as much national publicity as his teammate, offensive tackle Michael Oher, but defensive tackle Peria Jerry had a dominant senior season. He led the SEC with 18 tackles for loss and is one of those rare interior linemen that has the power to overwhelm opposing offensive linemen with his strength and the burst to also beat them with his quickness. Jerry is part of a talent-laden Ole Miss defensive line that needs to play that way today if the Rebels are going to slow down Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell.

WHAT TO WATCH: When the Rebels were playing their best football in winning their last five games of the regular season, they were able to keep teams guessing with a perfect balance on offense. Quarterback Jevan Snead threw 13 touchdown passes and only two interceptions during the five-game winning streak, and the Rebels were also able to run the ball whether it was out of their Wild Rebel formation or standard sets. Driving the football and keeping it away from Harrell and the Texas Tech offense will be crucial, as well as not turning it over. The Rebels had just four turnovers in their five-game winning streak. That's after turning it over 18 times in their first seven games.

WHY TO WATCH: This is the prelim in the Big 12 vs. SEC debate. The biggie, of course, is the Florida-Oklahoma tussle in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game. But watching the Rebels' defense go up against the No. 7 ranked Red Raiders' offense should answer some questions that have raged all season: Are the Big 12 offenses that good? Or are the Big 12 defenses that bad? Are the SEC offenses that bad. Or are the SEC defenses that good? Moreover, a win could really propel Ole Miss into the offseason with the kind of momentum this program hasn't had in a long time.

Picking the Big 12 bowl games

December, 31, 2008
12/31/08
2:12
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are my picks for the second round of Big 12 bowl games, beginning with Thursday's Konica Minolta Gator Bowl

Konica Minolta Gator Bowl -- Clemson 31, Nebraska 28
Dabo Swinney has energized the Clemson program after taking over as interim coach -- a little like Bo Pelini's job with the Cornhuskers from earlier this season. Both of these teams are playing their best football of the season. But I expect Clemson to beat Nebraska with a taste of its own medicine by controlling the clock thanks to a heavy dose of tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller. If the Tigers can do this and keep quarterback Cullen Harper out of too many long-yardage situations, I expect them to nose past the Cornhuskers and fulfill a little of their early promise expected of them. It just took a different coach to get them there.

AT&T Cotton Bowl -- Texas Tech 34, Mississippi 20
It will be good for the Red Raiders to get back to football after some of the travails of the last several weeks. But Graham Harrell's surgery and Mike Leach's contract squabbles should be long forgotten by the team that many forgot still earned a share of the Big 12 South Division title. Look for a healthy Michael Crabtree to be the difference in this game, if the Red Raiders can keep a salty defensive front from pressuring Harrell. And even if the Rebels get ahead early, remember that Harrell has directed two wild bowl comebacks in the last two seasons, rallying the Red Raiders from a 31-point deficit to win the 2006 Insight Bowl over Minnesota and a 17-point deficit in the final four minutes to direct a comeback in last season's Gator Bowl over Virginia. Houston Nutt has directed a nice renaissance with the Rebels this season, leading them to victories over the last two national championship teams. But the chore of beating Texas Tech will prove too much for them on Friday.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl -- Texas 41, Ohio State 20
After being snubbed for the Big 12 title game, the Longhorns will approach this game with a chip on their shoulder. That's not a pretty proposition for an Ohio State team that has been blown out of its last two BCS bowl games by a combined score of 79-38. The key for the game will be the play of streaky Ohio State freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the return of tailback Chris Wells. I expect Texas' defensive front keyed by Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller to exert enough pressure to keep Pryor discombobulated most of the game. And if Texas can get receivers Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby open against a tough Ohio State secondary keyed by Malcolm Jenkins, the Longhorns should have the edge on offense, too. This game will be close at the half, before the Longhorns pull away in the second half.


My bowl picks last week: 1-1* (50.0 percent)
My picks for the season: 85-14 (85.9 percent)

* Not including Wednesday's Kansas-Minnesota game

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are 10 things I'm looking forward to watching in Big 12 bowl games that start on Thursday.

1. Clemson's defense performs with new leadership: Heralded defensive coordinator Vic Koenning left Clemson before the Tigers' matchup in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl against Nebraska for a new job at his alma mater at Kansas State. It will leave Clemson linebackers coaches David Blackwell and Ron West calling defenses in an interim capacity in the bowl game against Nebraska. It won't be an easy chore considering that the Cornhuskers rank in the top 20 nationally in passing yards, yards per game and points.

2. Joe Ganz's final game: Nebraska's senior starting quarterback has quietly led a resurgence of the Cornhuskers' offense, directing them to at least 30 points in 10 of 12 games this season and at least 41 points and an average of 504 total yards in their last three games. Ganz needs four touchdown passes to break Nebraska's single-season and career marks. Considering the way he has played down the stretch, those marks might not be out of the question with a big day against the Tigers.

3. Pelini's mark on history: First-year Nebraska coach Bo Pelini will be gunning for his ninth victory of the season against Clemson, which would enable him to join Frank Solich, Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney as the only Nebraska coaches to win nine games in their first full season with the Cornhuskers.

4. Texas Tech finally returns to football: The Red Raiders have endured a long month since the end of the season as Graham Harrell has recovered from delicate surgery on his non-throwing hand and Mike Leach has been involved in continued contact negotiations with school officials. It will almost be a relief to get back to football -- particularly with the return to health of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was hobbled much of the season with a sprained ankle. A victory against Mississippi in the AT&T Cotton Bowl would boost the Red Raiders to a school-record 12 victories in a single season.

5. Say goodbye to the Cotton Bowl -- in Fair Park: Thursday's game between Texas Tech and Mississippi will be the final AT&T Cotton Bowl game played in its historic facility near downtown Dallas before moving to the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in Arlington next season. The bowl has been one of the more tradition-steeped games in college football, beginning at its current location in 1937. Memories of that rich 73-year history will be especially vivid on Friday.

6. Harrell's remarkable legacy: Texas Tech's senior quarterback Graham Harrell will finish his career Friday as the clear best to ever play at his position in school history. He can punctuate his college career by staking two significant statistical claims. With 253 passing yards he can become the first player in NCAA history to pass for 5,000 yards in multiple seasons. And he needs two touchdown passes to surpass Hawaii's Colt Brennan's career record of 131 touchdown passes for the most in FBS history.

7. The Rebels' defense put to a test: Mississippi is allowing only 123.3 yards per game in their last three contests and have held opponents to less than 215 total yards in five games this season. They will be supremely challenged against an explosive Red Raider offense that ranks first nationally in passing and fourth in total offense and scoring. Tech erupted for at least 538 yards of total offense in eight of its first 10 games this season, but has been progressively limited to its lowest offensive totals in each of the last two games against Oklahoma and Baylor.

8. Will Ohio State's success against Big 12 teams continue against Texas? The Buckeyes have compiled a remarkable 28-4 record against Big 12 teams, including a 5-0 mark in bowl games. But they will be facing a Texas squad in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl that is hungry after being snubbed for a shot at the Big 12 title game and the FedEx BCS National Championship Game if it would have won there. The Longhorns are one of four programs nationally that are undefeated in BCS games.

9. Colt McCoy's retribution against the Buckeyes: Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was making only the second start of his career early in the 2006 season when he directed the Longhorns to a 24-7 home loss to Ohio State in his second career start. Since then, McCoy has claimed 30 of his 36 career starts to become the winningest starting quarterback in school history (31-7, .838 winning percentage.) Included in that streak have been both his bowl games.

10. Ohio State's trickeration on offense: The Buckeyes have spent much of their early bowl practices tinkering with a package where quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Todd Boeckman are in the lineup at the same time. They will try that offense against a Texas defense familiar with such a philosophy for chunk plays after early work this season with McCoy and Texas backup quarterback John Chiles playing at the same time. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel can only hope his gadgetry is more fruitful than Texas' ended up being.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Happy New Year's Eve! Before partaking in the daylong feast of football tomorrow, here are a few links to get you ready.

  • Lincoln Journal-Star columnist Steve Sipple writes that Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was overcome with emotion when asked about coaching quarterback Joe Ganz's final game Thursday in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl against Clemson.
  • A more mature Texas quarterback Colt McCoy prepares for Ohio State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Dallas Morning News Big 12 columnist Chuck Carlton writes.
  • Texas Tech coach Mike Leach related his favorite Cotton Bowl memory as the Red Raiders prepare for the Jan. 2 game against Mississippi. Jackson Clarion-Ledger columnist Rick Cleveland told of how Leach left a dummy set of plays when he was an assistant at Oklahoma, hoping a Texas coach or player would stumble upon them and believe he had found the Rosetta Stone as far as cracking his spread offense.
  • Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops will collect a $3 million bonus on New Year's Day, pushing his 2008 compensation over $6 million, the Tulsa World's John Hoover reports.
  • With Dez Bryant playing on one gimpy leg and Zac Robinson struggling with a bum shoulder, Oklahoma State was stripped of many of its offensive weapons in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl. But the Oklahoman's John Rohde writes that OSU coach Mike Gundy refused to use injuries as an excuse for his team's 42-31 loss to Oregon.
  • Kansas is poised for big things next season with the return of most of its major offensive skill-position players and both starting tackles. But Kansas City Star reporter J. Brady McCollough writes that the most important returning item could be offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, who guides the team into tonight's Insight Bowl game against Minnesota.

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