Missouri vs. Minnesota: Citrus Bowl Preview
• Reason to watch: To see if Minnesota is ready to take its next step. The Golden Gophers have been on a steady climb under Big Ten Coach of the Year Jerry Kill: 3-9 in 2011; 6-7 in 2012; 8-5 in 2013. There were opportunities for continued progress this season. A win over rival Wisconsin in the regular season finale would have given the Gophers their first 6-2 conference record since 1973 and sent them to the Big Ten title game. Instead, the Gophers blew a 17-3 second-quarter lead en route to a 34-24 loss. A win over SEC East champ Missouri -- in a New Year’s Day bowl, no less -- would be a big moment in Kill’s rebuild.
• Keep an eye on: SEC Defensive Player of the Year Shane Ray. The All-America pick set a school record with 14 sacks and led the SEC in tackles for loss with 21. The disruptive defensive end, in his first season as a starter, had sacks in each of his first five games, including two against South Carolina. But Ray has been quieter late in the season -- he had only nine tackles and two half-sacks in his last three games.
One other Missouri weapon to watch is SEC Special Teams Player of the Year Marcus Murphy. He was first-team All-SEC as an all-purpose player and scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and on kickoff and punt returns this season. Containing him will be the primary challenge for Minnesota.
• Did you know: The SEC has won matchups against the Big Ten in the Citrus Bowl (known as the Capital One Bowl at the time) for the last four years, including South Carolina’s 34-24 win over Wisconsin in last season’s game. The last Big Ten victory came in 2010, when Penn State beat LSU 19-17.
• Final analysis: Neither team has a signature win, so it’s hard to know exactly how good either is. Minnesota’s best victory came against Nebraska. But the Golden Gophers fell to Ohio State (31-24) and Wisconsin in bigger opportunities to break through. Despite winning the SEC East, Missouri’s two wins over then-ranked teams seem less stellar now -- South Carolina finished 6-6 and Texas A&M finished 7-5. The Tigers avoided the five best teams in the SEC West and suffered a mystifying loss to Indiana in nonconference play. Minnesota -- No. 25 in the College Football Playoff rankings -- would be Missouri’s best win of the year.
The Gophers can end a dubious streak: They haven’t won a bowl game in a decade, losing six straight since a 20-16 victory over Alabama in 2004. Minnesota had a favorable matchup with a 6-6 Syracuse squad in last year’s Texas Bowl but blew a late lead to fall, 21-17. Missouri is much better than that Syracuse team.
• The pick: Missouri 34, Minnesota 27