Cotton Bowl Preview: Ohio State Looks to Finish Season on High Note As Devin Brown Makes First Start in Top-10 Matchup with Missouri

By Dan Hope on December 29, 2023 at 8:35 am
Eliah Drinkwitz and Ryan Day with the Cotton Bowl trophy
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In an ideal scenario, Ohio State would be finishing its season in a different Texas city.

From the moment the Buckeyes began preparing for their 2023 season, the goal was always to end the season hoisting the national championship trophy in Houston. Instead, the Buckeyes will cap off their season in Arlington, Texas, where they’ll face Missouri in a non-playoff Cotton Bowl on Friday night.

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ARlington, TX

Ohio State would certainly rather be preparing to play in a College Football Playoff semifinal game on Monday. But the Buckeyes are still highly motivated to win their final game of the year.

“We put a lot of work into this season. People were sacrificing so much, sacrificing time, sacrificing seeing certain people or whatever that may be. So it's important, imperative that we come out of this season with something,” Ohio State captain Xavier Johnson said. “So we're coming down here to win a game, we're coming down here to enjoy ourselves and kind of have a celebration of the 2023 Buckeyes.”

Victory won’t come easily, however, as Ohio State faces a ninth-ranked Missouri squad that went 10-2 during the regular season and features an offense that’s arguably better than any the Buckeyes faced during the regular season.

The Headlines

Buckeyes look to finish strong

Ohio State learned the hard way last year what it feels like to finish the season with two straight losses. The Buckeyes don’t want to let that happen again.

While a victory against Missouri won’t erase the disappointment of missing out on the CFP and the Big Ten Championship Game after losing to Michigan for the third year in a row, it gives Ohio State the chance to win 12 games for the first time since 2019 and to finish the year with a trophy and a triumph over a top-10-ranked opponent.

Most of all, it’s a chance for the Buckeyes to finish the season on a positive note and begin to wash out the bad taste that’s been lingering in their mouths since they lost to the team up north five weeks ago.

“We worked so hard for this season, why not end it on a good note? We don't want to end it on a loss,” Ohio State defensive tackle Tyleik Williams said. “Last year, we ended on a loss. And we're playing a good team, but I think we have enough here to go down there and compete with them guys. So we don't want to end it on a bad note.”

Brown gets his shot

For the first time ever, an Ohio State quarterback will make his first career start in a bowl game. That quarterback is Devin Brown, who was unable to beat out Kyle McCord in the competition to start during the regular season but is now in line to lead Ohio State’s offense for the final game of the year after McCord transferred to Syracuse.

It’s a big stage for Brown to make his first-ever start as a collegiate quarterback, and there’s a lot riding on how he plays in this game. If Brown performs well and leads the Buckeyes to a win, he’ll be the frontrunner to remain Ohio State’s starting quarterback in 2024. If Brown struggles in an Ohio State loss, the Buckeyes could become more inclined to add a starting quarterback via the transfer portal.

Brown seems unbothered by that pressure.

“I'm just so pumped to get out there and finally play,” Brown said. “Even my family has been asking me like, ‘How are you not nervous? Are you nervous?’ I had all my family over back when I was in Arizona for the three days that we had (before the team traveled to the Cotton Bowl) and I was like ‘Nah, I really don't feel anything.’ I've been playing tackle football since I was 7 years old. It's just in a bigger crowd. That’s really it. It’s the same game.”

In just five games appearance this season, Brown’s play has been inconsistent as he’s completed 12 of 22 passing attempts for 197 yards with two touchdowns and one interception while also running for 35 yards (sacks included) and a touchdown. But Brown hasn’t yet had the sustained opportunity to lead the offense for an entire game that he’s expected to have against Missouri.

Brown says he’s feeling much more comfortable entering the Cotton Bowl than he did going into previous games where he didn’t know how much he would play if at all, and he’s impressed his Ohio State coaches and teammates with how he’s stepped up his performance in bowl practices.

“I think the first thing you notice is his command of the huddle, his command of the offense. I think he's done a nice job of that,” Ryan Day said. “He has a charisma about him that I think the guys appreciate. He's got a chance to extend plays with his feet. He's got a strong arm. He's very intelligent. He has a lot of skills, a lot of traits that you look for in a quarterback. Now he's just gotta go play the game.”

Big stage for Missouri

Given that Ohio State has made five of the first 10 College Football Playoffs, playing in any non-playoff bowl game feels like a consolation prize for the Buckeyes. For Missouri, however, making it to the Cotton Bowl is a big deal.

The Tigers have never played in the New Year’s Six before this season. A Cotton Bowl victory for the Tigers would cement one of the best seasons in program history. Having already won 10 games for just the seventh time in program history, Missouri now has a chance to win 11 games in a single season for the fifth time in school history and the first time since 2014.

“We had a good season, but we want to end with another W so we can make Mizzou history,” said Missouri cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine. “We're one of the best teams in Mizzou. That means a lot to us and this team.”

While Ohio State is expected to be without star receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., who appears likely to sit out the game to preserve his health for the 2024 NFL draft, Missouri does not have any players opting out. The Tigers will be without two of their top defenders – linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper and cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr. – due to injuries, but are expected to be at full strength on the offensive side of the ball, where they’ve outperformed Ohio State this season in terms of both points (34.1 per game to 32.8) and yards (442.9 per game to 425).

The 2023 season will be remembered as a successful one for Missouri no matter what happens Friday night, but the Tigers did lose their two marquee games of the regular season against LSU and Georgia. A victory over Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl would qualify as the signature win Missouri needs to make its 2023 season a legendary one for the program.

Keep An Eye on These Guys

Missouri WR Luther Burden III

It’s not very often that a team playing Ohio State can claim to have the best wide receiver on the field, but Missouri can legitimately make that claim in the Cotton Bowl. Assuming Harrison does not play for Ohio State, the top receiver in the game in terms of 2023 production will be Missouri’s Luther Burden III, a first-team All-SEC selection and second-team All-American who has caught 83 passes for 1,197 yards and eight touchdowns this season.

A five-star recruit from St. Louis who was recruited by Ohio State and just about every other top program in college football, Burden is graded by Pro Football Focus as the nation’s third-best slot receiver this season. A constant big-play threat who can both beat defenses deep with his speed and turn short passes into long gains by making defenders miss in space, Burden ranks fourth in the FBS this season with 22 receiving plays of 20 or more yards.

The explosive and shifty 5-foot-11, 208-pound sophomore lines up primarily as an inside receiver, which means Ohio State nickelback Jordan Hancock will likely draw the assignment of covering Burden on most plays, though all of the Buckeyes’ defensive backs need to be prepared for the threat Burden offers. Denzel Burke said this week that Burden will “most definitely” be the best receiver Ohio State has faced this season.

“He's a really good football player, man,” Burke said. “Good contested catch, good run after catch. And I could just tell when you watch film that he loves football.”

Missouri RB Cody Schrader

Missouri’s other offensive star had a far different path to stardom than Burden. While Burden arrived at Mizzou as a prized recruit, Schrader started his Missouri career as a walk-on, joining the Tigers after four years playing on the Division II level at Truman State.

Now in his sixth and final season of college football, Schrader has been one of the nation’s best running backs this year, earning first-team All-American honors after leading the nation with 124.9 rushing yards per game during the regular season. In 12 games, Schrader has rushed for 1,499 total yards and 13 touchdowns on 247 attempts, ranking second in the FBS with 11 running plays of 30 yards or more.

Schrader pairs a decisive, downhill running style with the speed to break free for long runs and the toughness to bounce off of contact and force missed tackles. He’ll give Ohio State’s run defense one of its biggest tests of the season.

“I think what surprises me is how quick he gets in and out of his cuts,” Ohio State defensive end Jack Sawyer said. “He puts that foot in the ground, he's downhill and quick. He's not gonna try to get around you, he's gonna try to run right through your face, and as a fan of football, I love running backs like that. So it's gonna be fun to go against him.”

Missouri CB Kris Abrams-Draine

The biggest star on Missouri’s defense, Abrams-Draine has been one of the most productive cornerbacks in the entire country this year. A second-team All-American, Abrams-Draine is tied for fifth in the nation with 16 passes defensed, including four interceptions. He’s also recorded 47 total tackles (36 solo) with 2.5 tackles for loss and one forced fumble.

Abrams-Draine has the fifth-highest coverage grade (89.5) from Pro Football Focus among FBS cornerbacks who have played at least half of their team’s snaps this season, having allowed only 25 catches for 327 yards and four touchdowns on 50 targets. The 5-foot-11, 178-pound junior is the number one player Brown will need to be aware of in Missouri’s secondary, though offensive coordinator Brian Hartline says he is impressed by Missouri’s entire defensive backfield.

“They're talented on the outside. They run really well, both guys. One guy more heralded than the other, but I have a lot of respect for both, frankly. I think that our guys do, too,” Hartline said. “Any time we get a chance to play a high-end defense that we get to play and go against really good DBs, it's a great opportunity for our guys to see what we're made of.”

Game Week Talk

“Pardon my French, but I think that’s kind of bullshit.”– Jack Sawyer on people calling the Cotton Bowl “meaningless”

No Ohio State player has given a stronger rebuke of the idea that the Cotton Bowl doesn’t matter than Sawyer, who said “this game means a lot to us and to the fans” and called it “an opportunity to go out there and play and put our best foot forward and show the world who we really are after a tough loss to a good team.”

“We gotta win this game. We gotta have something to show for at the end of the year. We had a great year. So just to hold up a trophy at the end of the year at the bowl we're gonna play in.”– Jordan Hancock on Ohio State’s motivation for the Cotton Bowl

Hancock is another Buckeye who was adamant in his interview session earlier this month that winning the Cotton Bowl is meaningful to him and his teammates. With all the hard work they’ve put all year, they want to have the opportunity to finish the season with a trophy celebration, which they haven’t had since they beat Utah in the Rose Bowl two years ago.

“It's going to be a tremendous challenge, but we're excited for the opportunity. I mean, this is why you coach college football, to get an opportunity to play against teams like Ohio State.”– Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz

Drinkwitz has been highly complimentary of Ohio State and Day ever since the Cotton Bowl matchup between the Buckeyes and Tigers was announced. He described Day’s track record of making a New Year’s Six bowl in every year he’s been a head coach as “about the most impressive thing I’ve heard in coaching.”

Projected Starters
Ohio State Pos Missouri

Get Smart

  • Ohio State is 10-1-1 all-time against Missouri. The Buckeyes’ only loss to the Tigers came in 1976; the two teams have met only twice since, with Ohio State winning a pair of regular-season matchups in 1997 and 1998.
  • Ohio State is 2-0 all-time in the Cotton Bowl. The Buckeyes beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl to end the 1986 season and defeated USC in the Cotton Bowl in 2017.
  • Ohio State is the only team that has made the New Year’s Six in all 10 years since it started in 2014. The Buckeyes are 4-0 in non-playoff New Year’s Six games.
  • Ohio State is 3-0 all-time in games played at AT&T Stadium. In addition to the 2017 Cotton Bowl win, AT&T Stadium was also the site of Ohio State’s 2014 national championship game win over Oregon and its 2018 regular-season win over TCU.
  • Former Ohio State wide receiver Mookie Cooper is a starting wide receiver for Missouri.
  • Missouri’s roster includes only one player from Ohio: Tight end Tyler Stephens, a native of Braceville, Ohio, who went to LaBrae High School.
  • Ohio State’s roster includes only one player from Missouri: walk-on linebacker Jalen Pace, the son of legendary OSU offensive tackle Orlando Pace, who still lives in St. Louis after starring for the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -4.5, O/U 49

The betting line for the Cotton Bowl has swung back and forth in the nearly four weeks since the matchup was announced. Ohio State opened as a 6.5-point favorite, but quickly became a betting underdog just one day later when McCord entered the transfer portal. Since then, the betting line has gradually moved back in the Buckeyes’ direction, with Ohio State now favored to win the game by more than a field goal.

Ohio State will be without numerous key players from the regular season, including McCord, likely two starting wide receivers in Harrison and Julian Fleming (who also entered the transfer portal), strong safety Lathan Ransom (who also missed the month of November due to injury) and possibly Big Ten linebacker of the year Tommy Eichenberg, whose status is “up in the air” due to an arm injury. But the rest of the Buckeyes’ starters are expected to be on the field for the Cotton Bowl, which means Ohio State will still have the talent advantage over its opponent.

There’s reason to expect some bumpiness for Ohio State’s offense with a first-time starting quarterback and the absence of its best player in Harrison, but the Buckeyes have enough other weapons to still do their share of damage against a Missouri defense that has been just average statistically this season, allowing at least 21 points in seven of its 12 regular-season contests.

Missouri’s offense is as dangerous as any Ohio State has faced this year, so the Buckeyes shouldn’t be expected to hold the Tigers to 17 points or fewer like they did all of their first 11 regular-season opponents. But Ohio State’s defense is hungry to prove it really is one of the best defenses in the country after allowing 30 points in its loss to Michigan, and we expect the defense to make enough plays to allow Ohio State to win.

The Cotton Bowl might not be as big a deal for Ohio State as it is for Missouri, but Ohio State’s undefeated record in non-playoff New Year’s Six games is evidence that the Buckeyes won’t let their disappointment of missing the CFP stop them from giving their all against the Tigers. Ohio State will still be in for a battle against a very good SEC team, but the consensus among our staff is that the Buckeyes will end the night lifting a trophy after their 12th victory of the season.

Eleven Warriors Staff Prediction
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