45F Independence Stadium, Shreveport, LA
Missouri wasn't invited to one of the Big 12's affiliated bowl games following its final season in the conference. Instead, it will get the chance to play a little closer to its new SEC brethren.
The Tigers will make their seventh consecutive postseason appearance Monday at the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., against North Carolina, which will play its final game under interim coach Everett Withers.
It was rumored for much of this season Missouri was heading out of the Big 12, and that became official Nov. 6 with the announcement that the SEC had accepted the school as its 14th member.
Fellow Big 12 school Texas A&M will also join the conference in 2012.
When that drama was winding down, the Tigers' bowl hopes were murky as they carried a 4-5 record down the stretch, but they secured a spot in the postseason with three consecutive wins.
Missouri (7-5) earned two of those victories after sophomore running back Henry Josey tore two ligaments and a tendon in his left knee. At the time of his injury, Josey had rushed for a Big 12-best 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns.
The week after Josey went down, the Tigers claimed a victory over Texas Tech with coach Gary Pinkel suspended following his arrest for drunken driving. Pinkel later pleaded guilty and received a 30-day suspended sentence along with two years' probation.
Missouri capped the season with a 24-10 victory over Kansas in what could be the final game for a while in one of the nation's oldest rivalries. The Big 12's bowls, though, passed over the Tigers, who were selected to the Independence Bowl for the third time in eight years.
Heading to Shreveport has its advantages, Pinkel said, with 35 of the team's players hailing from nearby Texas. There's also some sentiment in returning as Missouri's school-record run of postseason appearances began there when current Buffalo Bills wide receiver Brad Smith led the largest comeback in school history, rallying the Tigers from a 21-point deficit in a win over South Carolina.
"I think (heading to the Independence Bowl is) a plus, there's no question about it," Pinkel said. "We're in SEC country. I think it sorts out well for us, over for example going to New York (to the Pinstripe Bowl). It would not be a good travel for all our Texas kids. It would not be a good travel for our fans. That time of year, New York's a great city. This is much better for us, and much more fan-friendly. And certainly the exposure in Louisiana's a plus."
North Carolina also dealt with a challenging campaign, beginning with former coach Butch Davis' firing before the season for numerous NCAA violations under his watch. The Tar Heels won five of their first six games with Withers at the helm before struggling down the stretch to finish 7-5.
The school hired Larry Fedora from Southern Mississippi on Dec. 9, but he will take over after North Carolina's fourth straight bowl appearance, its longest streak since a seven-year run from 1992-98.
"I'm excited for our players, especially this group of seniors, to advance to a bowl game for the fourth straight season," said Withers, who will become co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. "Despite some challenging circumstances, this team continued to work hard and prepare each week for the next game. We now have a chance to win eight games for the fourth straight year and win our second consecutive bowl game."
The Tar Heels hope to achieve those goals with a pair of record-breaking players in running back Giovani Bernard and wide receiver Dwight Jones. Bernard rushed for a freshman-record 1,222 yards and 13 touchdowns, and Jones broke Hakeem Nicks' school mark with 79 receptions for 1,119 yards and 11 TDs.
Jones was briefly ruled ineligible for this game after he allowed his name and photo to be used on a flyer promoting a party at a club in his hometown, but the NCAA approved his reinstatement.
Sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner is closing in on his own school mark, needing one more touchdown pass for his 24th this season.
Missouri, meanwhile, is seeking to avoid a third straight postseason defeat with help from their own sophomore quarterback, James Franklin.
Franklin had 2,733 yards passing and 839 on the ground while accounting for 33 TDs (20 passing, 13 rushing). With his help, the Tigers had the 12th-most productive offense in the nation, averaging 472.4 yards, but will face a Tar Heels defense that ranked 14th against the run, allowing 106.2 yards per contest.
Missouri has won each of the previous two games with North Carolina, but the teams have not met since 1976.