Missouri concludes its quest for favorable bowl placement on Saturday afternoon at Mississippi State.
The Tigers (5-4) were No. 25 in last week’s College Football Playoff ranking before losing to Georgia 49-14. They will get one of the Southeastern Conference’s bowl berths, but the outcome in Starkville, Miss., could determine which one.
“We’re going bowling,” first-year Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “We’re excited about going bowling. It’s an awesome opportunity for our team to get a chance to continue this journey together and play another game.”
Meanwhile the Bulldogs (2-7) battled adversity throughout a difficult year marked by COVID-19 complications. They fell 24-10 to Auburn last Saturday for their third consecutive loss.
“In the end, together with all the commotion and clutter, we’ve created one of the most joyless seasons on Earth,” first-year Bulldogs coach Mike Leach said. “And hopefully we have the presence of mind not to repeat it this way again.”
But Leach is hoping the Bulldogs can create a positive ending by beating Mizzou.
“They’re starting to play together better and better with the disruptions,” he said. “I think (winning) would be huge. We’ve been on the threshold of that against some really good teams for the last several weeks.”
While Leach is open to filling one of the bowl vacancies — sub-.500 teams are eligible this season — Drinkwitz is emphatic about playing on.
“We’re going to be in a great game because of the type of season we had,” Drinkwitz said. “Bowl games are still a reward for the season you had.”
Missouri is coping with injuries across its defensive front. Trajan Jeffcoat, Kobie Whiteside, Markell Utsey and Chris Turner are all questionable to play in this game.
The depleted Tigers have struggled to stop the run in their last two games, allowing Arkansas to rush for 292 yards and Georgia to rush for 316. But they will face a passing blizzard with the Bulldogs operating Leach’s familiar spread offense.
“He’s committed to throwing the football and does it at a really high level,” Drinkwitz said. “They supplement their run scheme with tunnel screens, which helps them slow down the pass rush.”
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers has completed 71.1 percent of his passes this season for 1,533 yards and seven touchdowns. Jaden Walley emerged as his top receiving target with 43 catches for 562 yards, a school record for freshmen.
“Their progression throughout the year, you can tell they are getting more comfortable in their scheme,” Drinkwitz said of the Bulldogs. “They found their quarterback and he’s doing an excellent job for them. He knows exactly where the ball is supposed to go. They have some dynamic wide receivers. You can just tell that offensively they are hitting their stride.”
The Tigers try to balance the power running of Larry Rountree III (851 yards, 12 touchdowns this season) with some pro-style passing with Connor Bazelak (2,141 yards and five touchdowns).
“They’re aggressive both sides of the ball,” Leach said. “They have an aggressive run game on offense. Defense, they put a heavy front up there and like to play man coverage and try to be physical about it. It’s not a situation where they’re trying to fool you. They’re pretty aggressive and right out there in your face.”
Mississippi State defensive end Marquiss Spencer will miss the game after suffering a scary head or neck injury against Auburn. He regained body movement at the hospital, but he remained under observation.
–Field Level Media