When is a make-or-break game not a make-or-break game? When the team that has to win the game might not have to win the game after all. And that's where we are when it comes to the Missouri Tigers' game against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Friday.
Left to their own devices, Missouri would not be in prime position to get a bowl invitation. The Tigers are 5-6, needing another win to lock up bowl eligibility, and are 14-point underdogs against Arkansas. Because essentially every SEC team with a .500 or better record is guaranteed to play in the postseason, a win Friday would normally be a win-and-in game for Missouri, but a must-win to get a bowl berth.
Normally. But thanks to the proliferation of bowl games over the last decade, we're looking at a near-certainty that, one year soon, college football is going to have too few bowl-eligible teams to fill all the postseason games. Someone with a 5-7 record is going to crash the bowls relatively soon, and it might just be this season. If that happens this year, Missouri could be in a prime position to be that team. Winning Friday would be the easier and less stressful way to achieve the same goal.
1Last stand? This will be Gary Pinkel's last game as head coach at Missouri, unless the Tigers win or get into a bowl game some other way. Combined with Missouri's defense, that raises the potential of an upset or at least an uncomfortably close game for Arkansas. But the potential rallying effect has been a mixed bag for the Tigers since Pinkel announced his retirement a couple of weeks ago. Mizzou narrowly beat BYU the day after Pinkel publicly revealed that he was stepping down. It wasn't enough for the Tigers to beat Tennessee last week, though. Still, it wouldn't be surprising if Missouri came out playing a bit harder than you might expect and maybe even put a scare into what should be a superior team.
2Study in contrasts (Part I). This is one of those stereotypical games when strength meets strength and weakness meets weakness. Arkansas' offense is second in the SEC in yards per play; Missouri is next to last. The Tigers have scored fewer than 10 points in five games this season, and haven't scored more than 13 points against an SEC opponent not named "South Carolina" all year. The advanced stats pretty much back that up. Arkansas is the No. 3 team in the country on offensive S&P+, while Missouri checks in at No. 121, above only Vanderbilt among teams in the SEC. (Note: Traditional team stats used in this post come from cfbstats.com.)
3Study in contrasts (Part II). Missouri's defense, though, is second in the league in yards per play allowed, while Arkansas is dead last. Yes, Arkansas' defense now ranks worse than even South Carolina on a per-play average -- by close to half a yard. Playing Ole Miss and Mississippi State in the space of two weeks can do that to a team. Again, the advanced stats tell much the same story -- the Tigers are tenth in defensive S&P+, while the Razorbacks are ranked 87th.
4A new rivalry. While the fact that the teams are in neighboring states made this a natural fit for the East-West rivalry, there's also not a bunch of shared history between the Razorbacks and the Tigers. Until last year's inaugural showdown in the SEC, the two teams had only played each other five teams and hadn't faced one another in the regular season since 1963. But there is a pretty sweet trophy that's been made for the game.
Seriously, it’s a cool trophy. Removable, 25-lb. centerpiece is color-coded for the winner. pic.twitter.com/chu9kAE2mS— George Schroeder (@GeorgeSchroeder) November 24, 2015
5Getting points. By one measure, both of these teams are pretty bad at scoring when they get into the red zone; Arkansas is ninth in the SEC and Missouri is 11th. But when you look just at which team is more likely to get touchdowns, things look a little different. With the Hogs scoring a touchdown almost two-thirds of the time, Arkansas ranks second in the conference in red-zone touchdowns. Missouri comes in last, getting to the end zone on just a little more than one-third of its opportunities inside the 20-yard line. Then again, Missouri ranks fourth in the SEC in touchdowns allowed on red-zone attempts, while Arkansas checks in at No. 13, so something might give one way or another in this one.
THREE TO WATCH
Brandon Allen, QB, Arkansas: What Allen has done the last few weeks is phenomenal. The senior has broken the Arkansas record for touchdown passes twice in three games. Over the last three games, he's 72-of-104 for 989 yards and 14 touchdowns against one interception. That's good for a jaw-dropping 191.61 passing efficiency. And those three games include his effort against LSU, which featured just 16 passing attempts. Missouri's defense will face one of its toughest challenges this season in Allen.
Kentrell Brothers, LB, Missouri: There's really only one stat you need to understand to get an idea of how good Brothers is. He leads the SEC with 140 tackles this season. The second-best player on the list has 105. If Brothers didn't play this week and didn't play in a bowl game, it would still take Armani Watts four games at his current clip to pass the Missouri linebacker. Oh, yeah, and Brothers also has 2.5 sacks among 9.5 tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions. The Butkus Award has made itself a joke.
Nelson Chenault -- USA Today Sports
Charles Harris, DE, Missouri: And if Brothers isn't giving a team trouble, then Harris probably is. The redshirt sophomore has an SEC-leading 18.5 tackles for loss this year, getting at least one against every opponent except South Carolina and BYU. He has seven sacks among those tackles for loss and is credited for 10 quarterback hurries to boot. Watching Harris go up against Allen and Alex Collins should be fascinating.
There is the wild card of a motivated Tigers team that shouldn't be factored out of this game. And as prolific as Arkansas' offense has been, it would be foolish to think that the Razorbacks will torch the Mizzou defense. Mississippi State is the only team that's managed to score more than 21 points against the Tigers this season. At some point, the lower-scoring a game, the more things tilt to the underdogs' advantage. If the game were in Columbia, I might even be tempted to go with Mizzou. But it's not. Arkansas gets a scare, but Pinkel has to wait awhile longer to find out if he gets one more game. Arkansas 22, Missouri 15