Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tigers to play Iowa for first time in 100 years

The convoluted bowl selection process rewarded Missouri (10-2, 6-2 in Big 12 play) with a fine matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Insight Bowl at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 28 in Tempe, Ariz. The game will be shown on ESPN.

This came as a pleasant surprise after three straight years of Missouri getting selected for bowls behind teams with equal or worse records. Really, though, the bowl selection process is based on so many factors, and the Big 12 had five teams finish at 6-2 in league play, so good fortune plays as much of a role as anything in who gets which bowl. For example, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ unwillingness to play his brother’s Arizona team was a key factor in how the bowl situation would shake out until Oklahoma secured the conference title and an automatic Fiesta Bowl berth.

For the record, the Insight bowl is fourth in the Big 12’s bowl selection order. It’s probably fair to call it a middle-tier bowl.

But in any event, it will be an exciting matchup for fans in these bordering states. The Iowa and Missouri campuses are only about 240 miles apart, but the two schools haven’t played since 1910. Missouri leads the all-time series, 7-5. The teams were in the same conference for a few years in the early years of each program.

Missouri infamously backed out of a deal for the two to play annually from 2005 to 2008, pretty much because Iowa was pretty good in the early 2000s and the Tigers preferred to instead pad their record with easier games. (Can’t know what would’ve happened, but the teams both went 7-5 in 2005 and Missouri actually had better records in 2006 through 2008.)

While Iowa isn’t one of the nation’s most prestigious programs, the Hawkeyes have plenty of tradition and intrigue. Hayden Fry, the storied former coach, and Nile Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman winner who died in a World War II training flight, give the Iowa program some history. The Hawkeyes, have won or shared 11 Big Ten titles, although only one outright conference title since 1958. This year’s Hawkeye squad (7-5, 4-4 in Big Ten) features Ricky Stanzi, Iowa’s senior quarterback. Stanzi is third all-time in Iowa passing yardage.

I like this matchup for the Tigers. Iowa is a talented, disciplined team, but they finished a bit below preseason expectations. The struggled with pass protection at times, particularly in their loss at Arizona, and Missouri has a fierce pass rush. It’s a little stereotypical, but it bears mentioning that Big Ten teams sometimes struggle with speedier offenses, and Missouri’s spread is all about speed and timing.

The win would give Missouri 11 wins, which would be the second-most under Pinkel and tie for the second-most by a Tiger team ever, trailing only the 12 wins in 2007. The pick here is a close, defensive game with the Tigers breaking through late to earn the win.

Pinkel’s ten-year tenure: This season was coach Gary Pinkel’s 10th season at Missouri. There have been challenges, but he appears to be gradually improving the program. Overall, Pinkel is 77-48 at Missouri, including 42-38 in regular season league play.

Splitting his Mizzou tenure in half shows stark progress. In his first five seasons, his teams went 29-30 overall and 16-24 in Big 12 games. In the last five seasons, his teams have gone 48-18 overall and 26-14 in Big 12 games while winning two North Division titles in 2007 and 2008. (Yes, Missouri technically was also co-North champs with Nebraska this year, but division titles are only useful things if they net you an appearance in the conference title game.)

Perhaps more encouraging is Missouri’s increased ability to beat “good” conference opponents. Against Big 12 teams that finished with a winning record in conference play, Pinkel is 5-22. But he started 1-16 in such games, and has now won four of his last 10 against teams that finish 5-3 or better in conference play. He won two of three this year, beating Oklahoma and Texas A&M, losing to Nebraska.

I do think much of Pinkel's legacy at Missouri will be tied to whether or not he breaks through with a conference title or not. I'm hopeful this can happen one of these years if the Tigers keep climbing. What's already known is that Pinkel has tangibly improved the program in his time here, and he's done it without any NCAA investigations or violations, and he deserves to be commended for these accomplishments.

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