ARLINGTON, Texas – Two years after switching to the formidable Southeastern Conference, the Missouri Tigers find themselves facing an old foe.
“We’re playing Oklahoma State, we are familiar with them a little bit,” coach Gary Pinkel said at the bowl announcement on Dec. 8. “It’s funny how things have flipped.”
The former Big 12 acquaintances will meet in the 78th AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic on Friday in a matchup that promises to light up the scoreboard.
Missouri and Oklahoma State have met on the gridiron 51 times with the Tigers holding a 28-23 edge. The Cowboys though have won the last three games including a 45-24 victory in Columbia in 2011.
Yet, more connections abound. Several players from both teams have faced each other in high school. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson played and coached at Oklahoma State.
For the past 15 years, this bowl game matches an SEC team against a Big 12 team. This year’s match, though, has the appearance of a Big 12 contest with Missouri and Oklahoma State mirroring each other in the stats.
The two-loss teams average 39 points a game operating the spread offense. On the flip side, both defenses are ball hungry. The Cowboys forced 30 turnovers to the Tigers’ 29.
Pinkel has maintained that the coaching staff made little changes when switching to the SEC. They were going to continue to play Missouri football.
“We didn’t change anything, how we recruit or how we train our student-athletes other than trying to keep our players healthy in the grind you go in,” Pinkel said.
The first season in the new conference was disappointing, but Pinkel continued to advocate consistency. The offensive line got stronger as a unit to combat the mighty SEC defenses, and two-a-day practices were ended for the team’s health.
Yet subtle changes have Missouri looking like an SEC team. First, the running game, led by 1,000-yard rusher Henry Josey, is the 17th best in the country, conforming to SEC tradition.
Historically, the SEC has the reputation of a power running ground while the lines battle in the trenches.
Playing in a conference of elite defenses, the Tigers have stepped up in the past two years. The Tigers’ pass rush has disrupted offenses for most of the season. At the helm of the defensive line is senior defensive end Michael Sam who leads the SEC in sacks and was named conference defensive player of the year.
Sure, Missouri hasn’t shed its Big 12 style, primarily in the passing game, but every other aspect from the strength of the team to the run game has changed to fit the SEC.
After two years in the new conference and a division title under their belt, the Tigers will use a blend of both conferences hoping to be the first SEC team to beat the Big 12 this bowl season.
“The win would prove we belong in the SEC and we should be respected by everyone in the conference,” Sam said.