Missouri overcame a brutal road slate and a 4-5 start to qualify for a bowl game with three straight wins to close the regular season. The Tigers suffered road losses at Arizona State (37-30, OT), Oklahoma (38-28), Kansas State (24-17) and Baylor (42-39), as well as dropping a home game to Oklahoma State (45-25) on Oct. 22. Gary Pinkel's squad upset then-ranked No. 20 Texas on Nov. 12 before handling Texas Tech and Kansas in the final two weeks of the season.
Pinkel's spread offense has churned out 472.4 yards, good for 12th nationally, and 32.2 points per game. Missouri's total defense rank of 60th nationally (382.3 ypg) provides a look into the spread-heavy Big 12, where the Tigers' can claim the conference's second-best defense. A solid turnover margin – plus-0.17, 42nd – has helped.
The Tigers have endured their fair share of adversity in 2011. Preseason first-team All-Big 12 left tackle Elvis Fisher was lost for the season after rupturing his patellar tendon during training camp and All-Big 12 running back Henry Josey (1,168 yards, 9 TD) suffered a season-ending knee injury in the upset over Texas. Off the field, Pinkel was arrested on a DWI charge in November and suspended one week without pay.
"We want our players to have a good time, have a lot of fun, but we also want to prepare well, put our focus into our position meetings and practice, and we want to play our best football game against North Carolina." – Pinkel
"They do a lot of shifts, and a lot of motions across, all power I and stuff that's just really different. Some of us don't like it because we're so used to running the spread now, but that's what they run so we've got to do it." – Missouri backup quarterback Ashton Glaser told the Columbia Missourian this week
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Passing Game vs. Missouri's Pass Defense
If there's been an overlooked or underappreciated aspect of North Carolina's offense in 2011, it's been Bryn Renner's play as a first-year starting quarterback. The red-shirt sophomore has completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 2,769 yards for 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Despite a handful of glaring mistakes in late-game situations, Renner ranks ninth nationally in passing efficiency (161.2) and represents one of only two underclassmen in the top-10 (TCU's Casey Pachall).
While UNC tailback Gio Bernard (1,222 yards, 13 TD) will be running into the strength of Missouri's defense (135.0 ypg, 43rd), Renner will be able to use play-action to attack the Tigers' zone defense that has allowed 247.3 passing yards per game (91st).
UNC received good news on Wednesday when the NCAA reinstated senior wide receiver Dwight Jones (79 catches, 1,119 yards, 11 TD) after he committed a secondary violation by allowing his name and image to be used for his own offseason birthday party. Jones and junior wide receiver Erik Highsmith (43 catches, 649 yards, 4 TD) will provide matchup problems for Missouri's secondary.
"They're very physical and fast," Highsmith said. "They're a zone defense. They don't let a lot of guys get behind them that much, so we've just got to keep picking them apart to move the chains and hopefully that will let us get behind them a couple of times."
Highsmith told reporters this week that he and Renner have spent a lot of time in the film room matching plays up that can find holes in Missouri's zone.
"We're going to have to execute," Renner said. "That's the word that we've been focused on – execution. Just running what we run. Not trying to do anything out of the ordinary, just running our offense."
Missouri's Run Spread vs. UNC's Run Defense
Pinkel's run-oriented spread offense is nothing like Paul Johnson's scheme at Georgia Tech – Missouri quarterback James Franklin threw for 2,733 yards and 20 touchdowns this season – but it does present a look that UNC hasn't seen since playing West Virginia during the 2008 bowl season.
"It's been different – we haven't seen that look in a couple of years, by my understanding," UNC senior defensive end Quinton Coples said. "It's definitely a great challenge but we've got a great game plan against them and hopefully we can go out and execute."
Josey's season-ending injury delivered a severe blow to the offense's potency (236.3 rypg, 11th nationally), but backup Kendi Lawrence (458 yards, 4 TD) has filled in admirably during the final three weeks of the season, rushing 50 times for 263 yards. Franklin has also totaled 839 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground.
"They're one of the top teams as far as being able to run the ball from the spread," UNC head coach Everett Withers said. "It presents a challenge because they have a very good quarterback that can throw it and they also have a good offensive line and a good running game."
The Tar Heels have faired well this season against the run, allowing 106.2 yards on the ground (14th nationally). UNC held Miami's Lamar Miller to a season-low 29 yards, Clemson's Andre Ellington to five yards on seven carries and Virginia Tech's David Wilson to 82 yards.
North Carolina will need a similar performance on Monday to help protect a vulnerable secondary that could be missing three senior starters in cornerback Charles Brown (knee) and safeties Matt Merletti (ACL) and Jonathan Smith (ankle).