December 23, 2014

Charlie Strong and Bret Bielema were hired to help Texas and Arkansas rebuild their programs. A trip to the Texas Bowl certainly doesn't get them back in the national spotlight, but it's a step in the right direction.

The former Southwest Conference rivals meet Monday night in Houston, with the Longhorns looking to give Strong a bowl victory in his first season in charge and the Razorbacks trying to end their breakthrough year with another big win.

Texas got off to a rocky start without Mack Brown on the sidelines for the first time in 17 years, as Strong released nine players by the end of September and the Longhorns opened 2-4.

They were 3-5 entering November before a 34-13 victory at Texas Tech was the first of three straight wins that made them bowl eligible for the 16th time in 17 years.

Texas, though, was routed 48-10 at home by No. 6 TCU on Nov. 27, leaving it at 6-6. The Longhorns lost seven games once in Brown's tenure.

"I think following coach Brown and the job he did here was unbelievable," Strong said. "I know that and will always respect that. ... I see it turning. We had a stretch there where we won games and then the last game we didn't play so well. ... It's coming, and we just know this. We just got to continue to work hard and good things are going to happen."

Good things finally started to happen for Arkansas in 2014. The Razorbacks followed a 3-9 record in their first season under Bielema by finishing 6-6 and becoming bowl eligible for the first time in three years.

"We were a team that I felt, as the (2013) season went on and as a head coach behind the scenes, I knew we were getting better," Bielema said.

Arkansas snapped a 17-game SEC losing streak with a 17-0 win over then-No. 20 LSU on Nov. 15 and defeated then-No. 8 Mississippi 30-0 the following week.

The Razorbacks faced eight AP Top 25 teams and lost six times, but they were only outscored 177-165. Six of those matchups came against squads that were in the top 10.

"We went through a couple heartaches. We lost a heartbreaker to Alabama by one. Lost a late fourth-quarter game versus Mississippi State," Bielema said. "... I think our guys have learned you actually learn more through failure than you do through success."

This is the first meeting between these schools since Texas rolled past visiting Arkansas 52-10 on Sept. 27, 2008. The Longhorns hold a 56-21 advantage in the series that includes 1969's Big Shootout, when No. 1 Texas rallied from a 14-0 deficit after three quarters to win 15-14 at No. 2 Arkansas.

"I grew up in Arkansas, grew up an Arkansas fan because it's a major university in the state," Strong said. "So many memorable games. Like I said, the '69 game was an unbelievable game. ... Growing up around it, you just know how big it was and how important it is to so many people."

These teams also met in the Cotton Bowl after the 1999 season, with Arkansas winning 27-6.

"This is going to be a really good matchup," Strong said. "You look at two teams that started off tough, but we both ended up heading in the right direction. ... You are looking at two teams that really love to run the football, and two defenses that are outstanding."

Arkansas ranked 26th in the FBS with 220.3 rushing yards per game behind Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Williams ran for 1,085 yards and 11 touchdowns while Collins rushed for 1,024 and 12 scores, making them the only FBS teammates this season to top the 1,000-yard mark.

"That's kind of the goal we wanted to achieve, just kind of have the balance between me and him," Collins said. "It's just kind of like, we're always there for each other, just kind of so we always have fresh legs out on the field."

Texas allowed 162.1 yards per game on the ground to tie for 64th in the FBS but was first in the Big 12 in total defense at 348.3, which ranked 26th in the nation.

Arkansas was two spots ahead of the Longhorns at 345.4 yards and finished 15th in the FBS with 20.3 points allowed per game. Texas gave up 23.3, good for 33rd in the country.

The Razorbacks will be without cornerback Carroll Washington and safety Rohan Gaines, who have been suspended for an unspecified violation of team policy.

Gaines was fifth on the team with 59 tackles and had a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against Ole Miss.

The short-handed secondary will be trying to slow down Texas wide receiver John Harris, who finished 20th in the nation with 1,015 yards and caught seven TDs to become the sixth player in school history to post a 1,000-yard season.

"I wish we had a better record," Harris said. "Of course we wish we were in the (four-team) playoff, but it means a lot to me to come in and have the chance to do what I did."

Texas is 27-23-2 in bowl games - only Alabama has made more appearances with 61 - and Arkansas has gone 13-23-3.

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