If you’re a fan of high-powered offenses, the 60th annual Liberty Bowl between the Missouri Tigers and Oklahoma State Cowboys should be near the top of your list of must-watch games this bowl season. Both teams enter the New Year’s Eve matchup in Memphis ranked in the top 20 nationally in both total and scoring offense. The Tigers average 36.9 points and 468.8 yards per game, while the Cowboys put up 38.4 and 500. That should make for a highly entertaining shootout.
Adding to the intrigue, a long-time rivalry will be renewed in this year’s Liberty Bowl. Prior to Missouri transitioning to the SEC in 2012, the Tigers and Cowboys clashed regularly as conference foes in the Big Eight/Big 12. In fact, Monday’s game will mark the 53rd meeting between the two schools dating back to 1915. They last met in the Cotton Bowl following the 2013 season, resulting in a 41-31 victory for the Tigers. Missouri holds a 29-23 lead in the all-time series.
Oklahoma State (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) makes its way to Memphis on the heels of a roller-coaster regular season. The stretch run resulting in five losses over their last seven contests. However, it was during this stretch that the Cowboys earned their two biggest wins of the season, knocking off Big 12 heavyweights Texas and West Virginia. They also fell just short (48-47) of upsetting College Football Playoff contender and in-state rival Oklahoma. A much-needed Liberty Bowl victory over Missouri would not only help the Pokes avoid their first losing season since 2005, it would give head coach Mike Gundy his third bowl win in a row.
Meanwhile, No. 23 Missouri (8-4, 4-4 SEC) rides a wave of momentum into this Liberty Bowl matchup. The Tigers won four consecutive games to close out the regular season. And if not for a somewhat controversial 15-14 loss to Kentucky, Mizzou would have wrapped up the regular season with six consecutive wins. The Tigers will now go in search of their first bowl victory since 2014, and their first-ever bowl win under head coach Barry Odom.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Missouri (8-4) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 31 at 3:45 p.m. ET
Where: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium (Memphis, Tenn.)
Spread: Missouri -8
Three Things to Watch
1. Missouri passing game vs. Oklahoma State pass defense
A more balanced attack under first-year offensive coordinator Derek Dooley is probably the only thing that kept Missouri quarterback Drew Lock from matching his record-breaking 2017 campaign. However, Lock still managed to pass for an impressive 3,125 yards and 25 touchdowns, with a career-best 63.2 completion percentage and a career-low eight interceptions. There’s a reason why Lock is widely regarded as one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2019 NFL Draft. And make no mistake, this is still one of the most dangerous passing attacks in the nation.
That could spell serious trouble for a woeful Oklahoma State pass defense that ranks 108th in the nation, allowing 258.3 passing yards per game. The Cowboys are also quite generous when it comes to giving up big plays through the air. That bodes extremely well for deep-threat wide receiver Emanuel Hall, who leads the Tigers with 756 receiving yards and six touchdowns despite missing four games this season.
The Oklahoma State pass defense does shine in one regard. A stellar Cowboy pass rush, led by All-Big 12 defensive end Jordan Brailford (10 sacks), has racked up 39 sacks this season. That should make for an intriguing matchup in the trenches against a veteran Missouri offensive line that also ranks among the nation’s best, allowing just 13 sacks in 12 games.
2. Oklahoma State passing game vs. Missouri pass defense
Former walk-on Taylor Cornelius wasn’t the most likely candidate to replace Mason Rudolph at quarterback for the Cowboys heading into the season. And no one pegged sophomore Tylan Wallace as the wide receiver most likely to fill James Washington’s shoes. But this dynamic duo has combined to keep OSU's passing attack among the nation’s elite once again.
Cornelius has completed 59 percent of his passes for 3,642 yards (10th in FBS) and 28 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. The senior quarterback also has 10 rushing touchdowns. As Cornelius’ favorite target, Wallace has racked up 1,408 receiving yards (third in FBS) and 11 touchdowns on 79 receptions, while junior wideout Tyron Johnson has chipped 704 yards and five touchdowns on 46 catches.
Cornelius and company will be paired against a Missouri pass defense in the Liberty Bowl that has been very generous, particularly when facing high-powered passing attacks. The Tigers surrender 256.1 passing yards per game on average to rank 105th nationally. The Mizzou pass defense did batten down the hatches down the stretch, allowing just 191 yards per game during their current four-game winning streak. However, none of those matchups came against an aerial attack on par with Oklahoma State’s. And it would come as a big surprise if the Cowboys struggle to find success through the air against the Missouri defense on New Year’s Eve.
3. The run game
Most of the damage in this matchup figures to come through the air. But you can’t underestimate the potential impact of the respective run games. That holds particularly true for Missouri. The Tigers have generated 2,367 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground, spearheaded by a three-man rotation of Larry Rountree III (1,012 rushing yards, 10 TDs), Damarea Crockett (709, 7), and Memphis native Tyler Badie (407, 2). This three-headed monster should prove to be a real handful for an Oklahoma State defense that has been almost as bad against opposing run games as it has against the pass. The Cowboys rank 81st in the nation against the run (178.8 ypg), including surrendering 25 rushing touchdowns in 12 games.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma State ground attack will find itself a little shorthanded with star running back Justice Hill electing to skip the Liberty Bowl to recover from a rib injury and prepare for the draft. That said, freshman running back Chuba Hubbard will be available on New Year’s Eve, and a reasonable argument can be made that the versatile speedster is actually more dangerous than Hill. Hubbard will, however, have his work cut out for him against Missouri. Unlike the Cowboys, the Tigers have done a good job agianst the run, allowing just 122.9 yards per game (22nd nationally) and a total of 10 touchdowns on the ground in the regular season.
An Oklahoma State upset is a real possibility here. The Cowboys have been up for the challenge in most of their bigger matchups this season. And they have an offense capable of keeping pace with any on the scoreboard. The problem is that OSU doesn't have the defense to match. That presents a problem against a Missouri offense that is equally capable of piling up the points. The Tigers have their issues defensively as well, but they are at least somewhat competent on that side of the football. That should provide a surging Missouri team with the edge it needs to stay out in front of the largely one-dimensional Cowboys. Regardless of which team comes out on top, the 2018 Liberty Bowl should provide plenty of fireworks and entertainment value.
Prediction: Missouri 38, Oklahoma State 31
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.