Thursday, when the Gophers meet Missouri in the Citrus Bowl, it might be the biggest game of Jerry Kill's four years as coach of the Maroon and Gold.

The prestige Kill and his football team will receive if they can beat Missouri — which, strange as it might seem, lost at home to a 4-8 Indiana team and then gave No. 1-rated Alabama a battle in the SEC Championship Game for three quarters before losing 42-13 — would be a big boon to the program, especially in recruiting.

The game on ABC will likely have a much bigger television audience than any previous Gophers bowl games under Kill and could help sell a lot of good football players on Minnesota as a program on the rise.

Except for Ohio State, Missouri might be the best team the Gophers have faced this year. And it will take the best Gophers performance of the year to win.

Kill, in studying film of the Missouri-Alabama game, was impressed with the Tigers even though they lost by 29 points. Before the Alabama loss, Missouri ran off six consecutive victories, including three on the road against competitive teams such as Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee.

"They are very, very good," Kill said. "You can always tell what kind of players [you have] when you're playing the best of the best. Their defensive ends at Missouri, Shane Ray and Markus Golden, when you go against Alabama's tackles and you get after it, you know you're pretty good. Shane Ray was the Southeastern Conference [Defensive] Player of the Year. You know they're good. Their quarterback runs around and makes plays. You don't play in that [SEC title] game unless you have a good football team. It's a great challenge for our program. and we're looking forward to it."

They won the SEC East Division, losing only to Georgia.

"Coach Gary Pinkel has done a great job in that transition from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference," Kill said. "They've upped their recruiting, and they have some players. They have done a great job, and any time you compete in that game and you play Alabama for the championship, you're pretty dang good. It's one of those deals where you get to go to a prestigious bowl game, we're going to have a lot of fans there and we certainly want to go there and do our part."

For the Gophers to win, their linebackers will have to do a great job, especially in containing Missouri running back/kick returner Marcus Murphy, who Kill ranks as their best player.

"[Murphy] is great, leads the country in return yardage and an All-American and also their running back," Kill said. "He's one of those guys that can stop on a dime. Our linebackers are going to have to be good and not overrun the football, and they're going to have to do a great job in pass coverage with the way things are. They'll have to contain the quarterback when he bounces out and play very well."

Missouri also has a good quarterback in Maty Mauk, a sophomore who rushed for 335 yards and passed for 2,551 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Yes, this is a big bowl game for the Gophers to try and turn around a negative postseason record. The Gophers have not played in a New Year's Day game for 53 years (1962), when they beat UCLA 21-3 in the Rose Bowl. They have a 4-10 record in postseason games since then and have lost six in a row. The Gophers' last bowl victory was in 2004, a 20-16 victory over Alabama in the Music City Bowl under coach Glen Mason.

Missouri connection

In 1959, the Gophers football team under Murray Warmath went 1-6 in the Big Ten and 2-7 overall.

There was a lot of heat on Warmath, and he was going to take the invitation of a former Tennessee football teammate, John Barnhill, who was the athletic director at the University of Arkansas, and become the Razorbacks' next football coach.

I had a friend who was a graduate assistant on the Arkansas football staff who called to tip me off that the Arkansas Board of Regents was going to meet the Saturday morning following the end of the football season to announce the hiring of Warmath.

But it was then that a local Gophers booster of Warmath named Donald Knutson stepped in and promised a lot of recruiting help, especially with black players who at that time weren't allowed to play in the South. And with the help of Warmath's wife, Mary Louise, who didn't want to leave Minnesota, Warmath was convinced to stay.

The rest is history, with great recruits such as quarterback Sandy Stephens, Judge Dickson and Bill Munsey from Pennsylvania enrolling at Minnesota. Warmath's decision to stay resulted in then-Missouri coach Frank Broyles going to Arkansas and former Minnesotan Dan Devine taking the Missouri job, where he coached for 12 years before becoming the Green Bay Packers coach in 1971.

Warmath played Devine and Missouri five times and never won. In 1961, when the Gophers went to the Rose Bowl, they lost 6-0 to the Tigers. There was a scoreless tie in 1962 and losses of 17-6 in 1965, 24-0 in 1966 and 34-12 in 1970.

Jottings

• Last year, the Citrus Bowl paid $4.55 million to each team. However, in the Big Ten, all of the bowl money is put together and split among the conference teams.

Lane Kiffin, who graduated from Bloomington Jefferson and is helping set records as Alabama's offensive coordinator, is a candidate for the 2014 Broyles Award, given to the top assistant coach in the country. Under Kiffin, Alabama has set a school record of 490.5 yards per game to rank 16th in the country. The Tide's 282.6 passing yards per game is also the most in school history. Kiffin has developed quarterback Blake Sims into the second nationally ranked player in quarterback rating (87.9) and first in the SEC in passing efficiency (159.5). … There is a possibility Kiffin and Alabama could play in the BCS National Championship Game against Florida State, where former Gophers coach Tim Brewster is the tight ends coach and has been part of 27 consecutive victories and former Gophers linebackers coach Bill Miller has been part of this year's undefeated season.

• Former Gopher wide receiver Tony Levine was fired as head coach at Houston despite the fact that he had a winning 21-17 record over four years.

Joe Coleman, the former Gophers basketball player who transferred to St. Mary's (Calif.), has played only one game for the Gaels since the opener because of a leg injury.

• ESPN baseball analyst Dave Schoenfield wrote that the Twins made the right decision in extending pitcher Phil Hughes through 2019. "Hughes returned to throwing his cutter after essentially ditching it in 2012 and 2013," he wrote. "That seemed to help him generate more groundballs and helped cut his home run rate."

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40, 8:40 and 9:20 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com