NCF Nation: Cotton Bowl first take

AT&T Cotton Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Oklahoma State Cowboys (9-3) vs. Mississippi Rebels (8-4)

Jan. 2, 2 p.m. (FOX)

Oklahoma State take by Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin: Mike Gundy’s team had hopes of making its first BCS at-large appearance before a stunning 27-0 loss to Oklahoma to finish the season. They could be facing more of the same against a talented Mississippi defense that ranked in the top 25 in pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense, sacks and tackles for loss. The Rebels whipped Texas Tech at the point of attack last season in the Cotton Bowl and will be looking for more of the same against the Cowboys. But they will be facing a different challenge from a run-heavy Oklahoma State offense keyed by All-American offensive tackle Russell Okung, bullish running back Keith Toston (1,177 rushing yards) and 2008 Big 12 rushing leader Kendall Hunter, who will have another month to get over his early-season injuries.

Bill Young has done a nice job retooling Oklahoma State's defense, which ranked sixth nationally in rush defense and will be tested by leading Mississippi running back Dexter McCluster (985 yards). The key for the game could well be which team gets the best play from quarterbacks who struggled late in the season. Oklahoma State’s Zac Robinson was hobbled with injuries and Mississippi's Jevan Snead threw three interceptions in a season-ending loss at Mississippi State. These teams have met once before when Mississippi escaped with a 31-28 victory over the Cowboys in the 2004 Cotton Bowl.

Mississippi take by SEC blogger Chris Low:Ole Miss gets a return trip to Dallas, this time getting to play in the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium. The Rebels can only hope the whole Cotton Bowl experience is as much fun as last season when they shredded Texas Tech.

The end of this regular season wasn’t much fun for anybody in Oxford. Ole Miss was whipped 41-27 by rival Mississippi State, solidifying the Rebels as the toughest team to figure this season in the SEC. They didn’t live up to their top-10 billing early, but then hit a stretch in October and November where they did look like the real deal, only to bow meekly to the Bulldogs in the Egg Bowl.

After a brilliant debut season in the SEC, junior quarterback Jevan Snead threw 17 interceptions and was one of the more disappointing players in the league. He never found a rhythm and didn’t play with a lot of confidence at times.

Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt didn’t put Dexter McCluster at running back full time until midway through the season, and boy, did he take off. Always a threat to go the distance, McCluster rushed for 821 yards in his last five SEC games.

Nutt and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy go back a ways. Nutt was an assistant coach on Oklahoma State’s staff when Gundy was the Cowboys’ quarterback in the 1980s.

Jan. 2, 2 p.m., FOX

Ole Miss take by SEC blogger Chris Low: Ole Miss was the breakthrough team of the year in the SEC. The Rebels (8-4) won their last five games and did it in impressive fashion.

This is the same program that went winless in the SEC the previous year. But first-year coach Houston Nutt brought his "can do" attitude to Oxford, and the players responded. They were the only team to beat Florida and did it at the Swamp and routed LSU at Tiger Stadium.

It could have been even better had Ole Miss not fumbled away home games against Vanderbilt and South Carolina during the first half of the season.

The Rebels were more than happy to accept the AT&T Cotton Bowl bid, but they didn't get the easiest draw. Texas Tech (11-1) and its high-flying offense will be the opponent on Jan. 2 in Dallas. The Red Raiders' spread offense put up outrageous numbers with quarterback Graham Harrell throwing for 4,747 yards and 41 touchdowns.

Ole Miss has the defensive line to put pressure on Harrell, especially if Greg Hardy shows up to play. But the Rebels have been vulnerable at cornerback and don't have much depth there. This has a chance to be one of the more entertaining games of the bowl season, the kind of game where the team that has the ball last wins.

Texas Tech take by Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin: Two of the biggest surprise teams in college football will square off in a battle of homecomings for their top players. That will boost interest in what promises to be a sentimental matchup as the bowl plays its final game at its historic Cotton Bowl location before moving to the Dallas Cowboys' stadium next season.

Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell will play close to his Ennis home in his final college game. And it could be the final game for 2007 Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree, who grew up in Dallas and is strongly considering declaring for the NFL draft.

Those homecomings aren't just for the Red Raiders. Jevan Snead returns to Texas after leaving the state to play for the Rebels, who he directed to unexpected success this season capped by an upset triumph at Florida. Snead played high-school football in nearby Stephenville and even had a turn with the Texas Longhorns before transferring when he couldn't beat out Colt McCoy for the Longhorns' starting job.

Texas Tech's potent passing offense will be tested by an underrated Mississippi defense that ranked 15th nationally in total defense. The Rebels are solid offensively, mirroring the Red Raiders' defense with steady production.

The Red Raiders' hopes of finishing off the winningest season in school history could depend on a big finish from Crabtree and Harrell. And playing close to home could give them the inspiration to do just that.