Texas Bowl Preview: Arkansas vs. Texas
Reason to watch: One of college football's oldest rivalries gets a renewal in the Advocare100 Texas Bowl, one of the most intriguing matchups of any bowl game before New Years' Day. The Razorbacks and Longhorns ended the season playing stronger football than they did in the beginning (excluding the thrashing that Texas suffered against TCU) and both programs look primed for breakout seasons in 2015. The most visible coaching hire of 2014, Charlie Strong started his first season in Austin by dismissing nine players and ramping up the team drug testing program in an attempt to reintroduce 'core values.' He ended the season coaching one of the more feared teams in the Big 12 despite its generally dysfunctional offense. In Fayetteville, Bret Bielema finally ended a 17-game conference losing streak and engineered the SEC's third-best rushing offense. With both teams showing improvement, the old Southwestern Conference rivals should put on an entertaining show.
Keep an eye on: Tyrone Swoopes. It's easy, if lazy, to focus on one of the starting quarterbacks, but Swoopes remains a polarizing topic of discussion among Longhorns faithful. The sophomore quarterback was unexpectedly thrust into the starting role after David Ash was forced into retirement after suffering another head injury in the season opener against North Texas. Since then, the ultra-athletic Swoopes demonstrated progress in some games (UCLA, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State) and crippling lapses of confidence in others (Baylor, Kansas State, West Virginia). The nadir came during the Thanksgiving Day nightmare against TCU, where Swoopes turned the ball over five times in Texas's 48-10 home loss. The Longhorns don't have any other feasible options under center, further increasing the scrutiny on Swoopes' play and development. He'll face a swarming, blitz-happy Arkansas defense that hasn't allowed more than 21 points since the end of October.
Did you know: Arkansas leading rusher Jonathan Williams finished with only one more carry than the team's second-leading back, Alex Collins. The two-headed attack produced the 28th-best rushing attack in the nation this season, with both accumulating over 1000 yards. It was the first time the Razorbacks featured two 1,000-yard backs since Darren McFadden and Felix Jones accomplished the feat in 2007. They'll face a Texas defense which has adequately limited the run, but struggled in fast-paced games (BYU, TCU).
Also, did you know that the Texas Bowl may have the finest pre-bowl activities of any bowl game?
Final analysis: Fans and pundits giddily counted the SEC losses after a series of tone-deaf maneuvers from Bielema in 2013 and in the offseason, but the second-year coach has compiled a complete offense and defense that ended the season as one of the most feared teams in the SEC. The Razorbacks narrowly fell to Mississippi State and Missouri and suffocated both Ole Miss and LSU (by a combined count of 47-0) in their last four games. The stingy Texas pass defense should make this game a trench battle and pleasing to older fans yearning for the days of Darrell Royal. But the game will likely hinge on the play of Swoopes, whose talent is evident, but whose confidence is shaky.
Prediction: Arkansas 23, Texas 10