December 23, 2014

Having surpassed expectations again, Missouri will try for an unprecedented feat in program history in the Citrus Bowl.

The 16th-ranked Tigers will face a Minnesota team that's trying for a rare nine-win season in its first New Year's Day game in 53 years.

After losing 13 starters, Missouri was picked to finish fourth in the SEC East and not expected to return to the conference title game. Instead, the Tigers reeled off six consecutive wins to hold off Georgia in the division and make it back to Atlanta, where they lost again - 42-13 to No. 1 Alabama on Dec. 6.

Missouri was picked to come in sixth in the East in 2013 after going 5-7 in its inaugural SEC campaign. It easily bucked those predictions while tying a school record with 12 wins and ending up No. 5 in the final national rankings.

The Tigers (10-3) now have a chance to win at least 11 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time. They fell just short in 2008, going 10-4 after earning 12 victories in 2007.

Missouri has five seasons with 10 or more wins since coach Gary Pinkel's arrival in 2001 after previously producing one such campaign, in 1960.

"Certainly, there's things we have to do to improve ... but I'm so very proud of my players, coaches and this football program. This is a great opportunity," said Pinkel, who has a school-record 112 victories. "We got a chance to finish strong and we'll be playing a very good football team."

Picked to come in fifth in the Big Ten West, Minnesota (8-4) finished only behind Wisconsin in the division after a 34-24 road loss to the then-No. 14 Badgers in the regular-season finale Nov. 29. The Golden Gophers finished 25th in the Playoff Selection Committee rankings and received the most votes in the last AP poll among teams not making the Top 25.

Minnesota dropped three of its final five games but still has a chance to reach nine victories for the second time in 110 years. The program last accomplished that in 2003.

Like Pinkel, the Gophers' Jerry Kill earned conference coach of the year honors, and he's led the program to its first New Year's Day game since the 1962 Rose Bowl. Minnesota will be seeking to end a six-game postseason losing streak that dates back to a 20-16 win over Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl.

"Bowl games are all good, but we've certainly gotten rewarded by going to the Citrus Bowl. I think we all know you want to play in January. We haven't done that in a long time," Kill said. "I think everybody's excited. This is another step forward, and we need to take advantage of that step."

Record-setting senior David Cobb led the Gophers' run-based offense. Minnesota also has an All-American tight end in Maxx Williams and one of the nation's best turnover margins at plus-11.

Cobb ran for 1,548 yards to break Laurence Maroney's single-season school mark of 1,464 from 2005. He had 13 rushing touchdowns while quarterback Mitch Leidner added 10.

That duo now faces a Tigers defense which most recently gave up a season-worst 242 rushing yards against the Tide. Missouri allowed at least 210 on the ground in each of its three losses and didn't give up more than 155 in any of its eight wins.

Leidner will have one less passing option available after wide receiver Donovahn Jones was kicked off the team Sunday for violating a team rule. Jones was third on the team with 253 receiving yards despite making only 11 catches, two of which were touchdowns.

Missouri led the SEC with 42 sacks and Shane Ray had a league-best 14 en route to sweeping conference defensive player of the year honors. The junior defensive end also became the program's latest All-American.

The Tigers relied on their defense to overcome an offense that ranked next-to-last in the SEC with 27.4 points and 361.8 yards per game. They headed into bowl season in the FBS' top 30 with 21.4 points and 344.4 yards allowed per game.

Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, who was a finalist for the Broyles Award that's given to the nation's top assistant, is expected to be on the sidelines even though he's leaving to become head coach at Missouri State.

Missouri sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk often struggled in his first full season as a starter, but heads into Orlando having thrown for at least 230 yards in four straight games - he did that twice in the first nine. Mauk has nine touchdowns to two interceptions in his last six contests but won't have one of his top receivers, Jimmie Hunt.

The senior, who needed surgery on his left shoulder, had 40 receptions for 698 yards and seven touchdowns. He made six catches for a career-high 169 yards in the loss to Alabama.

Missouri will try to overcome Hunt's absence to win a third consecutive bowl game, which would be one shy of a school record. The Tigers topped Oklahoma State 41-31 in last season's Cotton Bowl.

They're facing the Gophers for the first time since a 34-12 win Sept. 19, 1970. Missouri is 4-0-1 in the last five meetings after losing the first three.

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