Bowl games run the gamut, from the oddball and uninteresting to the compelling and rich (hat tip to Ron Burgundy). It’s hard to imagine how Arkansas-Texas in any scenario would be a yawner, and the AdvoCare Texas Bowl next Monday night is a sellout for the first time in the game’s relative infancy, so the appeal is unquestioned from the regional assessment and even on a broader scale will be embraced.
In addition to pitting the rivals of yore against each other in the postseason for the first time since Arkansas turned back the Horns in a 2000 Cotton Bowl rout, the game brings so many subplots into play that we could exhaust all the ink in this issue on those alone. There’s the Charlie Strong factor, the Arkansas product who soldiered his way dutifully through the ranks of coaching to land a plum job, albeit one with recent bruising, and get the Longhorns into a 13th game despite numerous and pronounced hiccups on and off the field. Then you have Bret Bielema, still an unconventional and polarizing choice to helm the Hogs’ resurgence after 24 games under his belt, trying to parlay the team’s wins — Pyrrhic and actual alike — into heavy recruiting momentum and preseason buzz for 2015.
Arkansas looks the part of the favorite, accreditation of the conference from which it springs and the fact that it was competitive in all but about 20 to 30 actual game minutes this fall. There again is another subplot: The Big 12, having been rudely but demonstrably walled off from the playoff picture thanks to Bob Bowlsby’s ill-conceived plan to anoint co-champions and omit a league title game, gets a shot to usurp the SEC in a lesser but nonetheless important way.
The Hogs, conversely, bear the pressure of trying to exert a measure of league superiority. They had two chances this year to confirm that the West trumped the East and blew both, so now they’ve got to quash any supposition that the power conference debate is still in play. And they also have to show that their offense, which got stymied quite a bit even in victory late in the season, can recapture its most efficient moments.
There’s another wrinkle now for the Hogs’ vastly improved defense in the wake of suspensions of Rohan Gaines and Carroll Washington. Josh Liddell will helm the safety spot vacated by Gaines and presumably do well, given his extended field time this fall, and while Washington was heavily relied upon in nickel packages, he’s not irreplaceable. The more severe test will be Texas’ considerably varied offensive approach, and the challenge that large and mobile quarterback Tyrone Swoopes presents. This is Trey Flowers’ last game-action audition for the NFL and the senior’s overall performance in his final year dictates that he will be eager to leave his stamp on this game, for program pride and long-term economics.
Brandon Allen has had the chance to mend from the bangs he sustained to his midsection against Ole Miss, and the subsequent ones against Missouri, and there’s more riding on this one for him than perhaps any other player. Vastly improved from last year, he’s still not a lock to be the starter in 2015 because of the groundswell of quarterbacking talent that’s building below him. The fact is, Allen can and should thrive against the Longhorn defense if Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams can gobble up bigger chunks on the ground. As the season wore on, the 6- and 8-yard gains of September turned into 3- and 4-yard grinds and Allen was often left to convert third-and-long with a thin set of receivers.
It’s worth noting that Williams also put in for a draft evaluation, and while this columnist thinks his toughness and receiving skills make him a more viable pro at present than Collins, there’s no denying he could be a tremendous beneficiary of one more year in the two-pronged approach. With Korliss Marshall now officially gone, the workload on both backs in 2015 will be sufficient that any NFL team won’t shy away from their capacities as feature backs.
So it’s a showcase for many and the first chance the Hogs have had in three years to close out a winning campaign. Pearls did better than expected on the prognostication front this fall, only erring on the Georgia game, so take that into consideration as you wager away your Yuletide fortune. In this one, Flowers and Deatrich Wise wreak havoc in the Longhorn backfield all day, leading to four Texas turnovers, three coming in a decisive second quarter. With Allen calmly throwing for 200 yards and a score and letting Williams and Collins split the remaining quartet, it’s a comfy and happy way back to the Ozarks. Hogs 38, Longhorns 21.