Two years ago, Ohio State, having narrowly missed a CFP bid and dealing with a couple of marquee opt-outs, faced both motivation questions and an early deficit in the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes showed resolve, however, battling back from 14 down at halftime to beat Utah 48-45.
This time around, No. 6 Ohio State has narrowly missed a CFP bid and is dealing with the prospect of even more opt-outs (and the transfer of starting quarterback Kyle McCord). Backup quarterback Devin Brown is expected to start against No. 9 Missouri in the wake of McCord's departure. The Buckeyes are Mizzou's highest-ranked bowl opponent since the 1970 Orange Bowl, and the Tigers should make it to the game with their two-deep mostly intact. Are we due another Rose Bowl-level barnburner? Will a far more inspired Tigers team lay the hammer down? Or will the Buckeyes prove to be too talented to topple?
No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Missouri
The Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
When: Dec. 29, 8 p.m, ET
Where: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line: Ohio State -0.5
Key player: RB Cody Schrader
It's incredible to say about a team with a 3,000-yard passer (Brady Cook), a blue-chip, nearly 1,200-yard receiver (Luther Burden III) and first-team all-SEC performers at tackle (Javon Foster), defensive end (Darius Robinson) and cornerback (Kris Abrams-Draine), but the Tigers' success down the stretch was derived mostly through Schrader. Over the past five games, the Burlsworth Award winner (for best former walk-on) averaged 196 yards from scrimmage and 6.3 yards per carry. His consistent efficiency even produced 112 rushing yards against Georgia, and his absurd work rate shows a mentality that every football coach in the country seeks.
X factor: CB Kris Abrams-Draine
Missouri allowed a quarterback to put up a passer rating over 150 on just three occasions this season: in losses to LSU and Georgia and in a surprising near-loss to Florida. The Tigers' secondary won a lot of battles, especially Abrams-Draine (37 tackles, four interceptions, 10 breakups, 36% completion rate allowed, 12.0 QBR allowed), but bad things happened when it didn't. And even with opt-outs and portal entries likely wreaking havoc with Ohio State's depth chart on offense, the Buckeyes have an endless supply of blue-chippers out wide. Mizzou's DBs will have to come up big to keep the score tamped down.
How Missouri wins: Play like the motivated underdog
With its first top-10 finish in 10 years to play for and a depth chart likely less impacted by pregame attrition, Mizzou should theoretically be the more motivated and more intact team. Against Georgia, the Tigers proved they can fight for 60 minutes against teams with elite talent levels, and if they can do a better job of taking advantage of their opportunities than they did against the Dawgs -- they finished six drives in Georgia territory but scored only two touchdowns, and they had a worse third-down conversion rate -- a win is there for the taking. (Landing a couple of early haymakers and truly testing Ohio State's motivation levels wouldn't hurt either.) --Bill Connelly
Ohio State (11-1)
Key player: WR Marvin Harrison Jr.
Even with the eyes of every opposing defense trained on him, Harrison nearly matched the numbers from his breakout sophomore campaign in 2022 (77 catches for 1,263 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns). He became the first receiver in Ohio State history to record consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (67 receptions for 1,211 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 2023). His 14 touchdown receptions place him in a four-way tie for second nationally. He has caught at least one touchdown pass in each of the Buckeyes' past eight games, and hauled in two touchdowns a game during a three-game stretch -- victories over Wisconsin, Rutgers and Michigan State -- in the latter half of the season. He'll be eyeing a ninth 100-yard receiving game against Missouri.
X factor: RB TreVeyon Henderson
The decision of McCord, a high school teammate of Harrison, to enter the transfer portal Monday throws the Buckeyes' offense, which is averaging 425 yards a game (36th in the FBS) and 32.8 points a game (32nd in the FBS), into a little bit of a loop. Enter junior running back Henderson (854 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns), who'll be asked to take some pressure off whomever Ryan Day decides to start at quarterback against the Tigers -- likely sophomore Devin Brown. Henderson, who spearheaded Ohio State's September victory over Notre Dame in South Bend (104 yards and a TD on 14 carries), missed three games due to injury but has found his stride recently -- courtesy of 100-yard games in three of the Buckeyes' final five games of the season.
How Ohio State wins: Whoever starts at QB lights it up
After winning the quarterback competition with Devin Brown, McCord became only the seventh quarterback in school history to throw for at least 3,000 yards. With McCord's decision to leave ahead of the Cotton Bowl, there's a lot of questions to be answered, obviously, under center. But whether it's Brown (12 of 22 passing for 197 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception in five games this season) or true freshman Lincoln Kienholz getting the start, Ohio State will have to rely on its weapons (wide receivers Marvin Harrison, Jr., Emeka Egbuka and tight end Cade Stover). Ohio State has been the go-to school for ESPN 300 wide receivers since offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Brian Hartline, who played in Columbus from 2006 to '08, arrived back on campus in 2018. It will need to make that particularly obvious against Missouri. -- Blake Baumgartner