Welcome to the final weekend of the Three by Three this season! Allow me to be your college football sherpa, guiding you through the intrigue of the sport each week. I will try to avoid just covering the big obvious stuff, but sometimes the playoff IS the most interesting thing, you know?
Each week I will highlight three interesting storylines each from the Missouri program, in the SEC, and around the nation. Let’s get to it.
Cotton Bowl: Missouri vs Ohio State – Friday at 7 PM, ESPN
1.) Defending the run
Ohio State’s depth chart has been shaken up since the end of the regular season. Marvin Harrison, Jr is likely to sit out to preserve his status as a top-three draft pick – not top three round, that’s top three overall – and quarterback Kyle McCord is off to Syracuse, depriving the Buckeyes of their mainstays in the pass game. But backup quarterback Devin Brown was a blue chip recruit, and playmakers Emeka Egbuka, Cade Stover, and TreVeyon Henderson will all be suiting up in this game. Do not shed a tear for the Ohio State talent level.
It is the last name in particular that concerns me: Henderson is one of the most talented backs in the country, despite a college career that has been plagued by injuries. Brown is a load in the running game. The matchup this reminds me the most of is Florida, who diced Missouri with explosive tailbacks and quarterback runs targeting the linebackers. The Buckeyes will use Brown in the running game, and that +1 will give them a numbers advantage in the box – forcing the Tigers to go man on Ohio State’s talented passcatchers. Henderson is a proven commodity, and Brown’s potential as a runner will be a major test for Missouri’s defense, one that has me worried.
2.) Nasty Wide Outs
On the other side of the ball, the Tigers have their own advantage. The law firm of Burden, Cooper & Wease is the best collection of receivers Ohio State has faced all season. The Buckeyes will bring a full complement of defensive backs, including star corner Denzel Burke and slot man Jordan Hancock, but they are tasked with guarding a more explosive bunch than any group they face in the Big Ten.
I am excited to see each of Mizzou’s trio on a personal mission. Theo Wease, back in his hometown. Mookie Cooper, against the team he signed with in high school, proving his bona fides against the school where he never earned a shot. And Luther Burden, looking to show the world the best blue chip receivers reside in Columbia, not Columbus. If Mizzou is going to win, it will take a big day from this crew.
3.) Portal Rumblings
While the Tigers take the field for one final time, next season’s roster is already under construction. If Eli Drinkwitz’s outfit maintains the same output next season, Missouri will be competing in the inaugural 12-team playoff bracket, not “just” an exhibition game. Drink has already done tremendous work in the portal, elevating the roster talent with a number of four-star additions. But there are always new names on the shopping list. One I’m looking at is Appalachian State running back Nate Noel; the talented runner has been extremely productive in Boone when healthy. (He might be a better runner than Marcus Carroll, who had the benefit of a full season of health and also played in one of the best rushing infrastructures in college football.)
In the SEC
1.) Rose Bowl (CFP Semifinal): Alabama vs Michigan – Monday at 4 PM, ESPN
Does it get any better than this? Michigan, the untested behemoth, steamrolled to a 12-0 record without having to mount a comeback, run a 2-minute drill, or forced to throw the ball even once all season. Alabama is the opposite, forced to regroup after a mediocre September, rallying to play their best ball down the stretch. College football royalty brands, super star coaches, big name players on both sides of the ball, the Rose Bowl setting – how does it get better than this? (Spoiler: it might, in the game immediately following). I am picking Alabama to win the game and advance, because I think their coverage players are significantly better than Michigan’s pass catchers, and that advantage will allow them to control the game.
2.) Peach Bowl: Penn State vs Ole Miss – Saturday at 11 AM, ESPN
This one is a bit of an unknown. Both teams have some stars opting out, but both have young guns suiting up. Ole Miss’s Quinshon Judkins against Penn State’s Nick Singleton is a very fun matchup of two excellent running backs. Penn State plays classic Big Ten football and wants to pull this game down into the muck. Ole Miss plays a Big 12 style and wants an indoor track meet. Lane Kiffin’s offense against the Penn State defense is a matchup of strength-on-strength, and worth the price of admission.
3.) Portal Carousel
College football free agency is officially a feeding frenzy, and 2024 rosters will continue to take shape in the coming weeks. Will the Florida, Texas A&M, and South Carolina exoduses continue? Where will KJ Jefferson end up – UCF with Gus Malzahn would be a delight. What impact players will join the best college football conference in the land? Will there be any surprising post-bowl portal entries?
Around the Nation
1.) Sugar Bowl (CFP Semifinal): Washington vs Texas – Monday at 7:45 PM, ESPN
Both playoff games are incredible matchups this year. (I think the committee made a mistake leaving Florida State out, but oh boy, am I happy they did – both of these games are humdingers.) Washington and Texas feature two outstanding offenses with gunslinger quarterbacks and probably six NFL receivers between them. Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian and Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb are two of the most devilish playcallers in the game right now; I expect both will be deep in their bag on Monday night. This should be an absolute treat.
2.) Alamo Bowl: Oklahoma vs Arizona – Thursday at 8:15, ESPN
This one might get a little weird. Firstly, it’s always fun to root against Oklahoma, our once-and-future rivals. (If you are a denizen of Mizzou twitter, you know that rivalry is ready to be rekindled on the field after a few years of tight recruiting battles.) In this game, Oklahoma will be down a number of offensive lineman – including Cayden Green, one of the newest Missouri Tigers – but will still be throwing true freshman Jackson Arnold into the fire for his first career start. Arnold is a blue chip prospect with the weight of a fanbase on his shoulders, but will have to take down an Arizona team that is mostly intact and one of the most underrated teams in the country.
3.) Liberty Bowl: Memphis vs Iowa State – Friday at 2:30 PM, ESPN
As bowl season waxes and wanes, our chance of getting a truly weird game decreases. Later in the season you just get exhibitions between talented teams, but early in December you get some full-throated wackiness, as talent and stylistic gaps get exposed. This game has that potential. A weird Power Five team, built around defense, that got hot down the stretch with a freshman quarterback. A high-octange Group of Five team, playing at home in their bizarre stadium, with an offense that doesn’t quit and a defense that probably should. Sure, there’s joy in watching the Playoff, or in something like the Peach Bowl. But this dose of rowdiness is what college football is all about.