The obvious marquee match-up in the 2009 Cotton Bowl is Michael Crabtree, Graham Harrell and Texas Tech's lightning-bolt offense versus Peria Jerry, Greg Hardy and Mississippi's rock-ribbed defense. But although that match-up possesses most of the star-power, it is no more important than that between the Red Raider defense and the Rebel offense. The winning team will have to have gotten strong contributions from both sides of the ball.
For a Texas Tech defense that, with the exception of the Oklahoma game, has played solidly all year, the primary challenges will be dealing with the complexities of Ole Miss' "Wild Rebel" formation and not allowing Mississippi's speed to hurt them.
The Wild Rebel is a multidimensional offensive set that shifts skill players around and sometimes places a running back at the quarterback position. The formation is made all the more potent because of speed at the skill positions.
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"They have tons of speed," affirms Red Raider safety Daniel Charbonnet. "Their receivers are really fast. They have a few running backs; that number 22 [Dexter McCluster], he is a blazer."
"They have some physical guys as well. They are just really well rounded and balanced. There have been a few teams we have played like that. They just do a really good job of running the ball well and throwing it when they need to. They protect their quarterback. It definitely will be a challenge for us. We have to come out ready to play. We have to prepare well."
Preparing well will undoubtedly mean getting a handle on the Wild Rebel. Recognizing the sets, knowing where the ball is most likely to go, and lining up correctly will be necessary if the Red Raiders are to avoid being victimized by long plays.
"Sometimes they line their running back at quarterback and things like that. The teams that have been able to handle that are the ones that haven't panicked and just reacted and lined up fast. A lot of the teams that they have been killing with this and the formations have been teams that obviously didn't come in the game focused and able to line up," notes Tech linebacker Bront Bird.
"If you aren't able to do those things they kill you with it. It is all about being disciplined. So hopefully we will be the more disciplined team on Friday."
If comments from Mississippi players are any indication, the Texas Tech defense may have an opportunity to surprise the Rebels. The remarks are respectful but rather generic. And Ole Miss wideout Mike Wallace, for one, sounds pretty darned confident.
"We're going to try to control the ball. We're going to go out, execute our plays and stay on the field as much as possible. We want to keep our defense off the field as much as possible," states Wallace.
But then he continues, "I never count us out of a game. I never think we're going to lose. I feel like we can win this game. I don't feel like we're the underdog at all. Everybody else may feel like that. We feel we're a real good team. We feel that when we execute the things the coaches are telling us that we can beat anybody in the country. We're not going out with a sluggish mentality. We're going to be full-throttle every play. We're going to leave everything on the field."
Mississippi fullback Jason Cook plays it somewhat closer to the vest.
"Texas Tech has a really good defense. Their front four is good. They have athletic linebackers. They have quick, fast defensive backs with great hands. It's definitely going to be a challenge for us."
Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead, who is from Stephenville, Texas, just down the road from Lubbock, almost sounds like a Red Raider fan.
"They have a lot of athletes on the field. They play well together. They're a solid defense. They're really underrated. I look forward to playing them."
"I've watched a lot of film on them. I've also watched them throughout the season. They've been fun to watch. They have some great guys on defense, and their offense isn't bad either. They're a physical team with great athletes. They move well and make a bunch of big plays. Everybody talks about their offense, but their defense is pretty good."
With all the talk about the Air Raid, Mississippi's defensive front four and the Wild Rebel, how ironic it would be if defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill's Red Raider defense rose up and stole the show. Second fiddles do sometimes make the sweetest music.