Kansas St.-Arkansas Preview
In the opening month of the season, Arkansas looked less like a program that was heading to a bowl game and more like one that might have to search for a new coach.
The Razorbacks will seek to finish their turnaround by securing their most wins in four seasons when Bret Bielema faces one of his former mentors, Kansas State's Bill Snyder, in the Liberty Bowl on Saturday.
With Arkansas having lost three of its first four games, it looked like Bielema's seat was getting good and toasty with his team still having to face a rugged SEC schedule. The Razorbacks instead finished 5-3 in the conference and won five of six overall to end the regular season.
That closing stretch included road upsets of ranked squads Mississippi and LSU in the first two weekends in November. They needed All-American tight end Hunter Henry's miraculous lateral, deemed by some as the "Hog Mary," to set up the first of those victories, 53-52 in overtime over the then-No. 19 Rebels.
Arkansas (7-5) now has a chance to keep its momentum going in Bielema's tenure and reach eight wins for the first time since going 11-2 in 2011 under Bobby Petrino, a season that ended with a victory against Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl.
The Razorbacks are again facing a Snyder-led team but this time with Bielema, his defensive coordinator from 2002-03. Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith is also a former Wildcats assistant and was a star receiver for the program.
Bielema said he reached out to his former coach earlier this season when his team was struggling.
"I'm always leaning on him for stuff like that," he said. "I took some notes away and it worked. ... One thing coach Snyder will do is give you a good answer."
The bowl chances for Snyder's team were also looking bleak following an 0-6 start to Big 12 play, but Kansas State advanced to a sixth consecutive postseason appearance by winning its final three contests.
The Wildcats (6-6) used Morgan Burns' 97-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter to edge West Virginia 24-23 in their regular-season finale Dec. 5. Kody Cook, normally a receiver, threw a 77-yard touchdown pass and ran for another while filling in for injured quarterback Joe Hubener.
It's unclear if Cook or Hubener will start in the Liberty Bowl.
Kansas State started its win streak by rallying from a 21-point deficit for a 38-35 win against Iowa State on Nov. 21 with Jack Cantele converting a 42-yard field goal with three seconds left.
The Wildcats haven't had a losing season since 2008, the year before Snyder began his second stint with the team. To avoid that, they'll need to earn just their second win in eight bowl games since the 2003 season, all but one under their longtime coach.
Kansas State fell 40-35 to UCLA in last season's Alamo Bowl.
"Since I have been here we have only won one bowl game (a 31-14 victory over Michigan in the 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)," offensive lineman Cody Whitehair said. "As a senior, going out with a winning record and a big bowl victory would mean a lot to me."
The Wildcats are appearing in their first Liberty Bowl while Arkansas is making a record fifth trip.
The Razorbacks edged East Carolina 20-17 in overtime in their latest visit to Memphis on Jan. 2, 2010, after losing their previous three Liberty Bowls. That victory is among the program's three in their last four postseason games, and Arkansas routed Texas 31-7 in the Texas Bowl last season.
"Coach Snyder is relentless in his attitude toward bowl games. He knows it's another opportunity for a win," Bielema said. "I've been there. I've seen what those guys go through so we'll get their best shot."
A trio of single-season touchdown records are within reach for Arkansas' main skill players. Brandon Allen, who owns the school's career mark with 63 passing TDs, needs three more to match Ryan Mallett's 32 from 2010. Alex Collins, the third running back in SEC history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, needs two TDs to tie Bill Burnett's 19 from 1969, and receiver Drew Morgan is two scoring catches away from equaling Jarius Wright's 12 in 2011.
Kansas State has a 3-2 edge in the all-time series but hasn't beaten the Razorbacks since 1926.