When it comes to predicting the Texas Bowl (Dec. 31, 3:30 PM ET, ESPN) most in the national media agree; Missouri (8-4, 4-4) may struggle with Navy (9-4), but in the end the Tigers will simply just have too much speed and athleticism for the Midshipmen to handle. Among the national writers who have picked the Tigers? Chalk up ESPN.com's Pat Forde (Prediction: Missouri 31, Navy 27), SI.com's Stewart Mandel (Missouri 31, Navy 21) and four out of the five ‘experts' at Rivals.com. And while some maintain that it will take good coaching, grit and determination, and a little ‘luck' for Navy to pull the upset, let's not forget that the Mids have matched up against some of the nation's best this year. Here are three critical personnel matchups to watch during the game.
Make no mistake about it; Tiger wide receiver Danario Alexander might just be the best offensive skill position player Navy's defense will see this season. And that's saying quite a bit, considering the Mids have matched up against the likes of Biletnikoff Award winner Golden Tate of Notre Dame and Pittsburgh freshman sensation Dion Lewis, just to name a few. Alexander, who enters the Texas Bowl with a Big 12 leading 107 receptions for 1,644, was especially dangerous down the stretch for Missouri, producing three 200-yard plus receiving games in the month of November. At 6-foot-5, 215-pounds he not only has next level size, but he also possesses elite speed and cutback ability, making him a threat to take it to the house every time he catches the ball. Missouri is likely to use Alexander in a multitude of ways, including lining him up in the slot and even running speed option plays with him and quarterback Blaine Gabbert. And while he's a deep threat on the perimeter, Alexander does arguably his most efficient work underneath. Navy cornerback Kevin Edwards actually matches up fairly well against Alexander when it comes to one-on-one situations, but in Buddy Green's defensive zone looks Navy's linebackers are going to have to keep tabs on the dangerous play-maker when Missouri drags him underneath. Outside linebacker Ram Vela, playing in his last collegiate game for Navy, has shown outstanding recognition ability in his zone drops this season, and is more than capable of making plays on the ball while it's in the air. Still, Vela's 5-foot-9 height and low center of gravity make him susceptible to whiffing on Alexander in the open field – an advantage that the Missouri passing attack will likely try to exploit when devising ways to get Alexander the ball in space.
Not many defensive players around the country enter their final collegiate game with a resume as distinguished as Weatherspoon, who was recently named a Second Team All-American performer by the Associated Press after notching his third straight 100+ tackle season. The Butkus Award finalist is considered by many (including ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr.) to be a potential first round selection in next year's draft, and his toughness and athleticism are second to none among Big 12 linebackers. Still, if there is one flaw Weatherspoon does have, it's that he has a bad habit of taking a false step when reacting to plays, and has yet to go up against an offense such as Navy's triple option. Dobbs, meanwhile, has had some of his best games of 2009 when going up against BCS conference teams. Not only did Dobbs account for 27 Navy points against Ohio State's vaunted linebacker corps in the season opener, but he ran and threw for a combined 342 yards. Weatherspoon may be one of the nation's best, but against Navy he'll have to show that patience, discipline, and toughness when taking on the Mids' dual-threat and record-setting quarterback.
Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert vs. Navy ILB Ross Pospisil
Navy fans may know Gabbert as the 6-foot-5, 240-pound gunslinger who'll likely enter the 2010 season as a Heisman trophy darkhorse candidate, but the Missouri born-and-bred sophomore is more than just the successor to Chase Daniel. Gabbert, who has hit on nearly 60% of his passes for a 23-7 ration this season, has already shown a mastery of David Yost's offense, and has played in nine games this season in which he has not thrown an interception. Once more, Gabbert has deceptive athletic ability for his size, and can make plays with his feet by either design or improvisation. Not only is he a red zone threat on quarterback draws and isolations, but his quick feet and size give him the ability to pick up yards on the ground when plays break down. Defending Gabbert will be a challenge for Navy inside linebackers Ross Pospisil, Tony Haberer, and Tyler Simmons, all of whom will also have to contend with keeping their eyes on Missouri's potent underneath passing game. If Pospisil and company can't keep contain on Gabbert then it will be a long afternoon for the Navy defense.