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December 29, 2008

Are Big 12 defenses getting a bad rap?

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

Jeremy Maclin, Missouri's elusive, big-play receiver, was getting defensive.

Critics would say that was one of the few times this season that "defense" and the "Big 12" were linked. There is a perception that the Big 12 is a conference rife with explosive offenses and exposed defenses. The implication is that if they were facing stronger defenses, like those in the SEC, Big 12 offenses wouldn't be so high-scoring.

ALAMO BOWL

Missouri (9-4)
vs. Northwestern (9-3)

WHEN: 8 p.m. Dec. 29.
WHERE: Alamodome, San Antonio.
TV: ESPN (Ron Franklin will do play-by-play, with Ed Cunningham as the analyst).
THE LINE: Missouri by 12.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Missouri 3-4, Northwestern 2-2.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Missouri 21st, Northwestern 108th.
BCS RANKINGS: Missouri 21st, Northwestern 23rd.
COACHES: Missouri Gary Pinkel (3-2 in bowls); Northwestern Pat Fitzgerald (first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Northwestern is trying to post its first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Missouri averaged 43.2 points per game.
KEY STATS: Behind QB Chase Daniel, Missouri averages 340.4 yards per game to rank fourth in the nation in passing offense. The Tigers' passing game figures to pose a major problem for Northwestern, which ranks 74th in the country in pass defense.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Missouri junior WR/return man Jeremy Maclin figures to be an early entry into the NFL draft and a potential first-round selection. He led the nation in all-purpose yardage with an average of 203.5 yards per game. Maclin scored touchdowns via receptions, runs and a kickoff return.
That's why Maclin was upset.

"I'm an offensive guy and I take that as an insult when people say that," Maclin said. "I think [Big 12] defenses are just about as good; they're just different. The Big 12 is more about passing and the SEC is more run-based, so you can't compare the offenses that way. We have so many good offenses that put up numbers, so even if you blow somebody out you can still give up 350 yards passing."

And a lot of points, too. The Big 12 boasts seven teams that rank among the nation's top 19 in scoring offense. But the flipside is that seven of its teams rank 85th or worse in scoring defense.

"It's all talk. It really doesn't matter," Texas All-American defensive end Brian Orakpo said. "Just let two teams play and see whoever comes out on top. All the defensive stats don't matter. We play high-powered offenses each and every week. Stats don't matter. Wins and losses are the only things that count."

The questions persist, though. Are Big 12 offenses so strong because they face Big 12 defenses that are weak? Or could it be that Big 12 defenses are underrated because they face Big 12 offenses? The Big 12 opens its postseason Monday night in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, with Missouri playing Northwestern of the Big Ten.

"The Big 12 defenses get overshadowed by the offenses, but they're good, too," said Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, who is one of five Big 12 quarterbacks ranked among the nation's top 10 in passing efficiency. "We'll see when the bowl season comes around. I think the Big 12 will do well."

The bowls should indeed be the Rosetta stone. Four bowls will match Big 12 teams against top-15 defenses: Nebraska vs. Clemson (15th) in the Gator Bowl, Texas Tech vs. Ole Miss (14th) in the Cotton Bowl, Texas vs. Ohio State (eighth) in the Fiesta Bowl and Oklahoma vs. Florida (ninth) in the national championship game.

A year ago Big 12 teams went 5-3 in bowl games, with four opponents scoring 28 or more points. That included Oklahoma, which allowed 48 in a Fiesta Bowl loss to West Virginia. This season, Big 12 teams faced 15 "Big Six" opponents in non-conference games and allowed at least 31 points in eight of them. Big 12 teams that will appear in bowls went 5-2 in those non-conference games.

"The offenses are just that good," Maclin said. "Big 12 quarterbacks if you go down the list, you can see how good they are. There are so many good ones, and the offensive coordinators use different schemes. They do a good job with the schemes.

Stats don't matter. Wins and losses are the only things that count.
Texas All-American Brian Orakpo, on the perception that Big 12 teams don't play defense.
"The Big 12 has great tight ends and receivers and even running backs, even though they don't get as much praise. There are athletes on defense and they can show big time. OU has done it twice against us and Texas Tech."

The Sooners held Texas Tech and Missouri to 21 points each. That almost qualifies as a shutout in the Big 12. The Sooners also scored more than 60 points against those teams.

SEC teams Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Auburn, Vanderbilt and South Carolina all rank 30th or better in the nation in scoring defense.

"I have to give it to the SEC because they're great with defenses," said Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant, who has 1,313 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns this season. "But Big 12 teams have some very talented and explosive offenses. I feel like I'm an offensive guy, and with an explosive offense you can get to any defense."

Who has the edge?

Missouri run offense vs. Northwestern run defense
Although Missouri likes to throw, the Tigers have the ability to run. Derrick Washington rushed for 992 yards and 17 touchdowns. Northwestern ranks a respectable 34th in the country in rush defense. But Iowa's Shonn Greene, Michigan State's Javon Ringer, Ohio State's Chris Wells and Purdue's Kory Sheets[/db] exceeded 100 yards against the Wildcats.
Edge: Missouri.

Missouri pass offense vs. Northwestern pass defense
Quarterback Chase Daniel passed for 4,135 yards the nation's fourth-highest total and 37 touchdowns. Jeremy Maclin is among the country's best wide receivers and TE Chase Coffman is among the best at his position, too. Northwestern DE Corey Wootton is a solid pass rusher with nine sacks, and the Wildcats have allowed just 11 TD passes. But they also haven't played any passing offenses as explosive as Missouri's.
Edge: Missouri.

Northwestern run offense vs. Missouri run defense
Tyrell Sutton is an elusive back with big-play ability. But his availability is in question because of an injured wrist that forced him to miss the last four regular-season games. He has been practicing despite wearing a soft cast. If he can't go, the Wildcats likely will look to Stephen Simmons. Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is among the nation's leading tacklers and the Tigers rank 37th in the country in rush defense. But they allowed 243 rushing yards to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Edge: Missouri.

Northwestern pass offense vs. Missouri pass defense
Quarterback C.J. Bacher has thrown for 2,128 yards and 14 touchdowns, but with 14 interceptions. Three receivers have more than 40 catches. Missouri free safety William Moore has NFL talent, but the Tigers have struggled in pass defense. They rank 118th against the pass and have allowed 26 touchdown passes.
Edge: Northwestern.

Missouri special teams vs. Northwestern special teams
Maclin is one of the nation's premier return threats, and kicker Jeff Wolfert has converted 17-of-23 field-goal attempts, with four misses from at least 50 yards. Northwestern kicker Amado Villarreal has hit 19-of-23 field-goal attempts, with a long of 46. Punter Stefan Demos has had 25 kicks downed inside the 20. Simmons averages 22.3 yards on kickoff returns.
Edge: Missouri.

Missouri coaches vs. Northwestern coaches
In eight seasons under Gary Pinkel, Missouri is 58-41 and has won back-to-back Big 12 North titles. Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen has been named coach at Wyoming, but he will stay with the Tigers through this game. Pat Fitzgerald, a former star linebacker at Northwestern, is in his third season as coach and is 19-17.
Edge: Missouri.

X-factor: Missouri entered the season with aspirations of a Big 12 championship and possibly a national title. The Tigers fell way short. They lost their last two games, including a blowout at the hands of Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. Will the Tigers be fully interested and focused on the bowl game? The answer may determine the outcome.

Missouri will win if: Daniel, Coffman and Maclin (if he's indeed headed to the NFL draft) need to be intent on finishing their careers with a blaze of glory. When Daniel is at his best, the Tigers are difficult to stop and can score enough to compensate for their disappointing defense.

Northwestern will win if: Getting pressure on Daniel and forcing turnovers should be the top priority. Daniel has thrown eight interceptions in the Tigers' four losses. The Wildcats also must avoid turnovers to keep from giving Mizzou's offense more opportunities with the football. If Sutton can play and has a strong game, it obviously will enhance the Wildcats' hopes.

The picks
Mike Huguenin: Missouri 41, Northwestern 27
Olin Buchanan: Missouri 38, Northwestern 24

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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