9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Arkansas -5
A pair of classic Southwest Conference rivals meet to conclude respective rebuilding campaigns as the Texas Longhorns and Arkansas Razorbacks face off in Houston’s Reliant Stadium in the Texas Bowl. After a successful run in Madison, Wisconsin, Bret Bielema opted to take his talents to the SEC, where he took over an Arkansas program though rich with tradition, had fell on hard times. Now in his second season in Fayetteville, the big man has seen progression, which can be very difficult to achieve in the ludicrously competitive SEC West. Just this year alone, that particular half of the conference had as many four teams ranked in the Top-10 alone, with as many as three of them occupying a spot in the weekly College Football Playoff Rankings at one time! So after a 3-9 record (0-8 in SEC) in his inaugural term with the Razorbacks, Bielema guided the team to a respectable 6-6 record, despite going just 2-6 in SEC play, to become Bowl Eligible for the first time since 2011. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this team merely served as cannon fodder for their neighbors in the division; Arkansas very nearly beat top-ranked Alabama (14-13) along with Mississippi State (17-10), who spent much of the season ranked No. One Overall as well. Furthermore, they shut out both LSU (17-0) and Ole Miss (30-0) in successive weeks to become postseason eligible. Eight of their twelve opponents this season were ranked in the AP Top 25 at some point, and of their six losses, they were defeat by more than seven points just twice. Bielema looks like he’s on to something at Arkansas, and while there is still plenty of work left to do, this could be a major program to keep an eye in 2015.
As his teams in Madison did, the Razorbacks have won their games in the trenches. A former Offensive Line Coach, Bielema is all about dominating up front, which is exactly what this team has done as the season progressed. On the year, Arkansas has averaged 220.3 rushing yards per game on 5.2 yards per carry, but in their six wins has churned out 278.2 yards at a 5.8 yards per clip. Their Backfield alone sports not one, but two 1,000-yard rushers in the form of Tailbacks Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Sharing virtually an even workload, a mere carry separated them, the former rushed for 1,085 yards and eleven touchdowns on 5.8 yards per carry, while the latter logged 1,024 of his own and a dozen scores on 5.5 yards per attempt. In fact, they became the only pair of teammates in the FBS this season rush for 1,000 yards. Under Center, Brandon Allen has served as a steady steward for the Offense, efficiently if not unspectacularly managing the game. In his second season as the starter, the Redshirt Sophomore has completed 56.3% of his passes for 2,125 yards (6.7 yards/attempt), eighteen touchdowns and five interceptions. The Razorbacks don’t throw the ball very often (just 28.0 times per game), but with studs like Williams and Collins available, why would you? Defensively, Arkansas has improved immensely, allowing 18.7 points on 345.4 yards per game, including 221.4 yards against the pass and another 124.0 yards versus the rush. Over their final four contrsts, Bielema’s charges yielded a scant 31 points against the likes of Mississippi State LSU, Mississippi, and SEC East Champion Missouri. With that said, their Secondary will be thin tonight, with Defensive Backs Ronan Gaines and Carroll Washington suspended due to unspecified team violations. With the Longhorns capable of challenging them vertically, this could make for a very intriguing situation.
Meanwhile, in his first season as the Head Coach at Texas (6-6, 5-4 in Big Twelve), Charlie Strong has rolled up his sleeves and gone about rebuilding one of the preimminent programs in the country. Though the Longhorns achieved great success under his predecessor Mack Brown, the program stagnated, and as recruiting began to diminish (inexcusable in the state of Texas) so did the product on the field, which led to Brown’s dismissal after seventeen seasons. So in comes Strong, the first African-American skipper in the history of the University, attempting to not only change the product on the field, but the culture of the program as well. And with one year in the books, the jury is still very much out for the former Louisville Head Coach; Texas got off to a disappointing 3-6 start in which they endured a stretch where they dropped five of seven, a Quarterback change, and a number suspensions to many prominent players in why can only be perceived as a “cleansing”, if you will. However, after weathering the storm they were able to finally buckle down defensively, and string together three straight victories over the likes of Texas Tech (34-14), West Virginia (33-16), and Oklahoma State (28-7) to become Bowl Eligibile once again. At that point a 48-10 thrashing at home against TCU couldn’t put a damper on their campaign, for back in October this team looked completely lost.
We’re sure if Strong could have brought former Lousiville Quarterback Tedy Brisgewater with him to Austin,mud would have done so, but instead he has had to try his luck with the staff on hand at his disposal. The sizably talented, yet habitually injury-prone David Ash lasted exactly one game before suffering another concussion leaving Tyrone Swoopes to take snaps under Center. Needless to say, it was far from the smoothest of fits; on the season, Swoopes did get better as the season progressed, but still only managed to compete 58.8% of his passes for 2,352 yards (6.6 yards/attempt), thirteen touchdowns and ten interceptions. With that said, in those three victories he did toss four touchdowns to one interception. Unlike his counterpart tonight at Arkansas, he hasn’t had the benefit of a dominant running game, as the Longhorns have averaged just 148.7 yards on the ground on a disappointing 3.9 yards per carry. Both Tailbacks Malcolm Brown and Jonathan Gray have been fairly underwhelming this season,now inv the offense without much in the way of consistency. However, if there is nothing else to garner from this unit in 2014, the emergence of Wideout John Harris a bonafide playmaker should be noted. After spending last season as a Tight End, the Senior has flourished with Swoopes pulling the trigger, hauling in 64 passes for 1,015 yards (15.9 yards/catch) and seven touchdowns, with a total of four 100-yard games thus far. With all that said, Strong’s background is on the defensive side of the ball, and he has done a tremendous job getting a unit that was not void of talent to play at a high level for stretches of the campaign. In 2014, Texas allowed just 21.5 points on 348.4 yards, including 186.3 versus the pass and another 162.1 yards against the rush. Furthermore, they managed to force twenty-two turnovers (fifteen interceptions) and rack up 36.0 sacks, with a number of players such as Jordan Hicks and Qwandrae Diggs that can expect to hear their names called in May’s NFL Draft.