Commentary

Five keys to the Cotton Bowl

Updated: January 29, 2010, 12:05 PM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

We've seen in the past how disappointing regular-season endings can zap a team's emotion and concentration in the ensuing bowl game. Both Oklahoma State and Mississippi vow that won't be the case in Saturday's 74th Cotton Bowl Classic, the first to be played in the air-conditioned confines of Cowboys Stadium.

Mississippi rose all the way to No. 4 in the nation after a 2-0 start, but a 16-10 loss at South Carolina tumbled the Rebels down the rankings. They went on to lose three more games and, instead of playing for their first SEC championship and a shot at a BCS bowl, their consolation is the Cotton Bowl in consecutive seasons.

"What was difficult for us was when that first bubble popped on us in Columbia [S.C.]," Mississippi coach Houston Nutt said. "And that's where we had to do a good job as coaches, players. ... We had to do a good job of staying in there together because there were some tough times because the expectations were so high."

Oklahoma State eyed its first BCS appearance, and they were likely one win away. But the Cowboys were shut out by arch-rival Oklahoma, 27-0, in the regular-season finale.

Here are five keys to watch:

1. Houston Nutt vs. Mike Gundy

These two coaches go way back. When Gundy played quarterback at Oklahoma State, Nutt was the wide receivers coach. Of course, Nutt played the position at OSU before Gundy. Both have paved their own course as head coaches, but learned under greats like Pat Jones and Jimmy Johnson and have remained close over the years.

Similarities in coaching styles abound.

"Pat Jones and Jimmy Johnson were tremendous leaders. We learned a lot of football from them," Nutt said. "If you look real closely, from Dave Wannstedt, Butch Davis, all the ones that are kind of under the [OSU] tree, there's a lot similarities in coaching characteristics of being physical, playing fast, being able to run the football, being able to throw, being able to do both and having great special-teams play."

[+] EnlargeRussell Okung
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesOklahoma State's Russell Okung, the Big 12 offensive lineman of the year, is the No. 1 prospect at that position for the NFL draft by ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr., and Scouts Inc.

2. DE Kentrell Lockett vs. LT Russell Okung

Mississippi's Kentrell Lockett ranks third on the team with 10.0 tackles for loss and is tied for second with five sacks. The 254-pound junior was a third-team All-SEC pick and started all 12 games this season. If he's able to get pressure on Mississippi quarterback Jevan Snead, he'll have earned it.

Kentrell will go up against Oklahoma State All-American left tackle Russell Okung, who is expected to make his 47th consecutive start -- a streak that dates to his freshman season -- despite tweaking a knee at Tuesday's practice. Okung provides blind-side protection for quarterback Zac Robinson, and he'll need help as the Rebels have put opposing quarterbacks on the ground 34 times this season.

OSU's top lineman and the Big 12 offensive lineman of the year, Okung is the No. 1 offensive line prospect for the draft by ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr., and Scouts Inc.

3. QB Zac Robinson vs. QB Jevan Snead

Robinson will play his final game for Oklahoma State on Saturday, and he's expected to be as close to 100 percent as he's been in some time. He suffered a shoulder injury which kept him out of the team's Senior Night game against Colorado and an ankle injury early against Oklahoma slowed him in that crushing defeat.

Sometimes underappreciated by Cowboys fans, Robinson completed 167-of-270 passes for 1,966 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also ran for 296 yards and four touchdowns. He'll try to outperform Snead, who had a difficult time following up his excellent sophomore season after transferring to Mississippi.

Snead comes in as only the second Rebels quarterback to throw for consecutive 2,000-yard seasons, but he threw 17 interceptions this year, including four in a 22-3 loss to Alabama that was actually closer than the score indicated.

4. Rebels RB Dexter McCluster

Said Oklahoma State linebacker Andre Sexton of the elusive Ole Miss running back: "McCluster is a home-run hitter every time." At just 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, Nutt had trouble deciding how to use the senior this season. He's played wide receiver and running back, and he ranks second on the Ole Miss career all-purpose yardage list with 3,694 yards.

Still, Nutt tried to use him in spots early in the season to spring him on defenses. But after Mississippi lost to South Carolina, Nutt decided to showcase McCluster and feed him the football.

McCluster led the Rebels in rushing yards with 985 and 82.1 yards a game, and he was second on the team in receiving with 39 catches for 475 yards. He scored a team-high nine touchdowns.

5. Cowboys RBs Kendall Hunter and Keith Toston

Slowed by injuries this season after leading the Big 12 in rushing in 2008, Hunter returned late in the season but hasn't shown the great explosion he had before his injuries. With the long layoff leading up to the Cotton Bowl, it will be interesting to see how well he cuts and if he's regained his breakaway ability.

Hunter, a junior, played in just seven games, rushing for 288 yards. Keith Toston took over as the featured back and rushed for 1,177 yards, a 5.4-yard average, with 11 touchdowns. He came into this season having rushed for 1,507 yards in his career.

Making the most of it is senior year, the 214-pounder will be looking to end his career with a bang.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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