2009 Cotton Bowl Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 12/26/2008
No. 8 Texas Tech vs. No. 24 Mississippi
Conference Matchup: Big 12 vs. SEC
Date: 2 p.m., Friday, Jan. 2
Location: Cotton Bowl, Dallas, TX
Odds: Texas Tech -4.5; Total 69.5
So which conference was the best in college football this year: the SEC or the Big 12?
Your answer will likely be based in some regional bias either for or against one or more of the schools involved with each conference, so my question is more rhetorical. The only way to truly determine supremacy is on the field. And while most people will point to the Oklahoma-Florida clash as the determining factor in which conference reigns supreme, I actually think that the Cotton Bowl might well be a better indicator. (Not to mention a solid indicator of what may happen on Jan. 8.)
Ole Miss - one of the true surprises in college football (to everyone but yours truly) - finished the regular season at 8-4 and is No. 4 in the SEC. Texas Tech was 11-1 in the regular season and is the No. 3 team in the Big 12. Further, both teams have marquee wins over Top 3 opponents. The Rebels are the only team in the country to have beaten the mighty Gators while it was the Red Raiders that shot holes in Texas's national title plan. Therefore, I feel that these teams offer a solid litmus for determining relative conference strength.
Now, there is one large confounding factor in our experiment: Texas Tech has the homefield advantage. By playing this game in Dallas the Red Raiders will have overwhelming support in the Cotton Bowl. But that said, this edge has not always been a strong indicator of success against the spread. Over the past five seasons, teams playing in a bowl game within their home state against an opponent from out of state have gone just 20-19 ATS.
Whether or not the Red Raiders will have a home edge is debatable. What isn't debatable is whether or not they have an edge at quarterback.
Graham Harrell is the latest in a long list of prolific Red Raiders hurlers. The senior was a Heisman Trophy candidate while completing 71.5 percent of his passes for nearly 4,800 yards and 41 touchdowns. Over the past two seasons he has managed to complete 72 percent of his throws for over 10,400 yards and an absurd 89 touchdowns to just 21 interceptions.
Mississippi put the ball in the hands of young Jevan Snead, a junior transfer from Texas. Snead was the triggerman for a surprising Rebels attack this season. He only completed 55.7 percent of his tosses for 2,470 yards and 23 touchdowns. But in one telling stat his yards-per-attempt (8.3) was actually very comparable to Harrell's (8.4).
The issue of strength between these teams and these conferences also ultimately comes down to one thing: which league really has the stronger, tougher, more disciplined defenses. SEC schools have better statistical rankings on D, but they didn't have to face the caliber of offense that Big 12 teams mustered. But on the flip side, maybe those Big 12 offenses were made to look that much better by the shaky defenses in that conference.
Ole Miss can certainly hit people. They possess the No. 15 total defense in the country as well as the No. 14 scoring defense. The Rebels allow just 84 yards per game on the ground and they did something that Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and LSU couldn't do: hold Florida to "just" 30 points.
For the reasons I discussed, Texas Tech's numbers on that side of the ball aren't nearly as gaudy. They are No. 72 overall, No. 92 against the pass, and No. 44 against the rush. The Raiders did hold Oklahoma State and Kansas under three touchdowns. But they also gave up 28 or more points to lightweight offenses like Baylor, Nebraska and Kansas State. This is a veteran group - with eight two-year starters and 15 of their top 19 tacklers back from last year. But experience doesn't always mean that they are any good.
The Red Raiders are favored in this game and shackled with a cumbersome number of anywhere from 4.5 to 5.5. However, over the last three years they have played in three straight bowl games and each one was determined by just a field goal. In 2005 they actually lost outright to Alabama as a three-point favorite and last year they failed to cover as six-point chalk against a Virginia team that plays a similar style as this Ole Miss club. Tech is also just 2-6 ATS as a bowl favorite.
Mississippi is deceptively good. They have a load of seniors and have been playing inspired, care-free football all season long. The Rebels are 7-0 ATS as an underdog over the past two years, and they are 4-1 ATS in their last five bowl games. In fact, Ole Miss has scored outright wins in three straight bowl games in which they were an underdog.
There are compelling reasons to get on either side here. But I really think this one comes down to two simple questions: which conference do you think is better and which defense do you think will handle the opposing offense?