The Orlando-based bowl game with the New Year’s afternoon timeslot is back to its traditional name, but it’s a long way from its traditional matchup.
The Citrus Bowl — returning to that name for the first time since 2002 — still has a Big Ten-SEC matchup, even if the game features teams entering new postseason territory.
Minnesota is playing in a Florida bowl game for the first time since 2000 when the Gophers reached the Micron PC Bowl (now the Russell Athletic Bowl, also in Orlando).
Missouri’s wait has been even longer. The Tigers are playing a Florida Bowl for the first time since 1981 when Mizzou reached the Tangerine Bowl (the precursor to the Citrus/Capital One Bowl).
A number of factors played a role in these two unlikely teams facing each other in a prime slot on New Year’s Day. Conference realignment put Missouri in the SEC’s bowl lineup. Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss reaching the College Football Playoff bowls made the SEC East champs the most attractive team for the Citrus.
And lackluster seasons from Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan allowed overachieving Minnesota to slide into a bowl slot normally reserve for the Big Ten’s power programs.
Make no mistake, these teams earned their spots in a big-time bowl. Missouri overcame early losses to Georgia and Indiana to win the SEC East for 22 overall wins in the last two years. Minnesota defeated rivals Iowa and Michigan, plus Nebraska, to come within one game of a Big Ten division title.
Minnesota vs. Missouri
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 1 p.m.
Spread: Missouri by 5
Minnesota’s Key to Victory: Run, run, run
Missouri’s defense is led by its standout pass rush, anchored by defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden (21 combined sacks). A stout rushing attack can take Missouri off its game. What is the common thread among Missouri’s three losses? Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Arkansas also challenged Missouri with its run game in a loss. In three losses, Missouri opponents are averaging 231 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry and 10 total rushing touchdowns compared to 106.6 yards, 3.3 yards per carry and seven total TDs in 10 wins. Neutralizing the pass rush with the run game also freed up opposing quarterbacks to complete 71.9 percent of their passes in Mizzou’s three losses. Behind tailback David Cobb, Minnesota has a run game that could take Missouri’s defense out of its comfort zone.
Missouri’s Key to Victory: Maty Mauk
Mauk completed fewer than half of his passes against Alabama in the SEC title game, but he still hit a pair of deep passes to give the Crimson Tide pause in the third quarter (Alabama still won by 29). Mauk may never have a great completion rate thanks to his risky nature, but he can’t turn the ball over if Missouri is going to win. Mauk threw eight interceptions in Missouri’s first six games but calmed down during the second half of the season. As the Tigers finished the year on a 6-1 run, Mauk threw only three picks. Minnesota has a solid secondary that finished the season with 11 picks among six DBs. Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun is a ball hawk who could cause headaches for Mauk.
At the start of the season, this game seemed more like an optimistic Texas Bowl pairing. At some point, we’ll just trust coaches Gary Pinkel and Jerry Kill to exceed expectations. Instead, Missouri and Minnesota were factors in their respective conference races and ended up in a coveted Jan. 1 bowl spot. On paper, Missouri as the SEC’s representative would seem to have the edge, but Minnesota’s offensive scheme could even the odds against the Tigers’ pass rush.