Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tigers to face North Carolina in Independence Bowl

After much anticipation, Missouri will play North Carolina on Dec. 26 (4 p.m. on ESPN2) in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.

The Big 12 Conference no longer has a tie-in deal with the Independence Bowl, but the league had one more bowl eligible team (eight) than bowl tie-ins (seven). There were concerns among some Missouri fans that the Big 12 might give the Tigers a less-than-desirable bowl destination given Missouri’s pending move to the Southeastern Conference. However, Missouri officials said that Big 12 officials were actually helpful in securing a bowl location for the Tigers. Missouri finished fifth in the Big 12, but the bowls aren’t obligated to select teams in the order they finished, lending to the madness of the bowl selection process.

It’s understandable if Missouri fans don’t get too excited about the team’s third trip to the Independence Bowl in nine years. The players surely aren’t thrilled about spending Christmas in Shreveport, and this matchup of 7-5 teams is certainly less-than-scintillating. But it’s still a game for Tiger fans to enjoy during the holidays.

North Carolina had some preseason controversy when coach Butch Davis was fired 38 days before the season began amid an NCAA investigation of academic misconduct and improper benefits for players. Defensive coordinator Everett Withers became the interim head coach and led the Tar Heels to a 7-5 season. However, North Carolina lost four of its last six games, finishing 3-5 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, tied for fourth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

North Carolina is certainly known for its basketball tradition, but it has had mild football success lately; a bowl win would give the Heels a fourth straight 8-5 season.

Defensively, North Carolina has some talent on its defensive line that could challenge Missouri’s solid running game. Sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner directs the Tar Heels’ offense with a 68.8 completion percentage and 23 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions. Running Back Giovani Bernard ran for 1,222 yards with a healthy 5.4 yards per carry, and senior receiver Dwight Jones has been a very reliable target, with 79 catches for 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns.

With no common opponents, it’s tough to gauge how this game will go. In general I’m underwhelmed by ACC football teams, but Missouri has had its inconsistencies this year. With the Big 12’s stronger national reputation and Missouri’s three-game win streak, I’d expect Missouri to be a slight favorite in this game.

Missouri is 12-16 alltime in bowl games, including 3-4 under Pinkel. This is Missouri’s seventh straight year in a bowl, but making a bowl is nowhere near the accomplishment it once was; 58.3 percent of Division I-A teams and eight of 10 Big 12 teams made a bowl.

So in some ways this is just another so-so game on the bloated slate of 35 bowl games. But it’s also a chance for Missouri to win at least eight games for the sixth straight year, avoid losing six games for the first time since 2004, and recover from two straight tough bowl losses. Also, a four-game winning streak to close the season would be nice as the Tigers prepare to move to the wild world of SEC football next season.

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