Texas Tech has opportunity to complete the winningest season in school history in a year it achieved its highest-ever ranking. To earn the record-setting victory, the Red Raiders will have to knock off a team that defeated the previous two national champions this season.
In what could be one of the most entertaining games of this bowl season, the No. 8 Red Raiders and their high-powered offense will match up with the 20th-ranked Rebels on Friday in the final Cotton Bowl in the 73-year history of Cotton Bowl Stadium.
Texas Tech was worthy of a BCS bowl berth after finishing 11-1 and tying Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12 South with a 7-1 record. Because no conference can have more than two teams in the BCS, however, the Red Raiders were left out while the Longhorns and Sooners earned invitations.
That hasn’t diminished the sense of accomplishment for coach Mike Leach’s team, which rose as high as No. 2 in the AP poll and was 10-0 following a wild last-second win over then-No. 1 Texas on Nov. 1. The Red Raiders routed then-No. 8 Oklahoma State a week later, but any chance at a perfect season and a national championship ended with a 65-21 loss to then-fifth-ranked Oklahoma on Nov. 22.
“Eleven and one is pretty special, especially out of Texas Tech,” quarterback Graham Harrell said. “We did a lot of good things this season so hopefully a lot of people will respect that.”
While his team won’t be playing for a national title, Harrell gets to end his college career in Dallas, roughly 35 miles from his hometown of Ennis, Texas.
“The chance to go back home and play in front of my family and friends from Ennis is going to be very special,” Harrell said. “We thought all along that our team could do some special things this year and getting the invitation to the Cotton Bowl is something we are all proud of.”
Harrell will be looking to lead Texas Tech to the highest win total in the program’s 84-year history. The Red Raiders went 11-1 in 1953 and 1973.
Texas Tech also has the honor of playing in the final Cotton Bowl at Cotton Bowl Stadium before the game moves to the Dallas Cowboys’ new $1 billion-plus stadium next year.
The Red Raiders’ opponent in this game may be a surprise to some, but Mississippi (8-4) is one of the hottest teams in the country, having won five straight, including season-ending victories over LSU and Mississippi State by a combined 76-13.
Winless in the SEC last season, the Rebels responded in a big way to first-year coach Houston Nutt after winning 13 games over the previous four years. Ole Miss knocked off 2006 national champion Florida - which is in the BCS title game again this year - on the road Sept. 27, and also defeated defending national champ LSU in Baton Rouge on Nov. 22.
Nutt’s team was competitive in its four losses, each coming by a touchdown or less and by a total of 19 points.
“We gained a lot of confidence when we beat Florida in The Swamp, but we couldn’t handle success very well the following week (a 31-24 loss to South Carolina),” Nutt said. “We got on a roll so the last five weeks and November has been fun, but it starts with our seniors they’ve taken ownership of our team.”
This is the Rebels’ first bowl appearance since the Eli Manning-led team beat Oklahoma State in the 2004 Cotton Bowl.
Nutt is no stranger to the Cotton Bowl, having guided Arkansas there during the 1999 and 2001 seasons. He earned another trip to Dallas with the Razorbacks last year, but resigned after beating LSU in the regular season finale and didn’t coach in the game.
As impressive as Mississippi has been lately, a matchup with Texas Tech should present a severe test. The Rebels gave up 17.8 points per game this season - 15th in the nation - but slowing down Harrell, star receiver Michael Crabtree and an offense that puts up a 44.6 points per game will be extremely difficult.
“Harrell is so cool and confident and the receivers he has and their defense are underrated, they are so good,” Nutt said. “I can see why they lost just one ball game.”
Harrell had another season worthy of Heisman Trophy consideration, ranking second in the country in passing yards (4,747) and tying for fourth in touchdowns (41). This game gives Harrell an opportunity to pad his Big 12 career lead in yards (15,429) and completions (1,367) and could make him the NCAA’s all-time leader in TD passes, as he needs two to surpass Colt Brennan’s record of 131.
Harrell has been excellent in his last two bowl games. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as the Red Raiders pulled off the biggest comeback in bowl history in 2006, rallying from 31 points down to beat Minnesota 44-41 in the Insight Bowl. He threw for three scores in last year’s Gator Bowl, helping Texas Tech overcome a 17-point deficit in the final four minutes of a 31-28 win over Virginia.
The Cotton Bowl also represents a homecoming for Crabtree, a Dallas native who had 93 receptions for 1,135 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. Crabtree became the first repeat winner of the Biletnikoff Award as the country’s top receiver after he was the first freshman to take the honor in 2007.
Mississippi quarterback Jevan Snead, a one-time backup to Texas’ Colt McCoy, hails from San Angelo, Texas. Although his numbers don’t approach Harrell’s, Snead leads a balanced offense that averaged nearly 31 points per game and ranked third in the SEC in rushing and fourth in passing.
Texas Tech is 2-2 against Mississippi, winning the last two regular season meetings in 2002 and ‘03. The Rebels, though, beat the Red Raiders in the Independence Bowl in 1986 and 1998.
Texas Tech is 0-3 in the Cotton Bowl, making appearances in 1939, 1995 and 2006. Ole Miss is 2-1 in the game, appearing in 1956 and 1962 along with the ‘04 victory.