East Carolina and Arkansas have different reasons to view a Liberty Bowl triumph as further validation of successful seasons.
These teams meet Jan. 2 in Memphis, Tenn., with the Pirates attempting to avoid a second straight loss in this bowl and the Razorbacks trying to add another key foundation block under Bobby Petrino.
East Carolina (9-4) returns to the Liberty Bowl for the second consecutive season after defeating then-No. 18 Houston 38-32 in the Conference USA championship game. The Pirates are the first team to win consecutive titles since the conference switched to a two-division format in 2005.
"While one of our goals each year is to represent Conference USA in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl as a champion, having the chance to return to Memphis after our experience a year ago makes this trip even more special," coach Skip Holtz said. "We're looking forward to the challenge of Arkansas, a program with a great tradition and history out of a conference (SEC) which certainly speaks for itself."
The Liberty Bowl gives East Carolina the chance to record its first 10-win season since 1991. The Pirates had the same opportunity last year, only to lose 25-19 to Kentucky after blowing a 16-3 halftime lead.
Beating the Cougars, though, was the breakthrough win the Pirates sought all season after losing to previously ranked schools North Carolina and Virginia Tech. East Carolina has won six of seven, averaging 38.5 points and 442.0 yards in those victories over C-USA rivals around a loss to the Hokies on Nov. 5.
"From the beginning, they haven't set out to defend a conference championship," Holtz said. "They've set out to win one. It wasn't enough just to say we won one last year."
Patrick Pinkney played well for East Carolina in last year's bowl, completing 18 of 36 passes for 296 yards and one touchdown. He'll be aided by junior wide receiver Dwayne Harris, the MVP of the Conference USA title game and the conference's special teams player of the year.
Harris missed last year's Liberty Bowl due to a foot injury and may be primed for a big game. He had nine receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown in the C-USA championship game and returned three kickoffs for touchdowns this season while averaging 27.4 yards.
This will be the first bowl appearance for Arkansas (7-5) under second-year coach Petrino, who appears to be far better suited as a college coach than in the NFL.
Petrino returned to the college ranks after a disastrous 13-game stint with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 -- a job he got on the strength of a stellar 41-9 record in four years at Louisville. This season, the Razorbacks finished atop the SEC in scoring (37.3 points per game), passing (303.3 yards per game) and passing touchdowns (31).
"I'm excited about the preparation for the game and our team learning how to prepare for a big game," said Petrino, who won the 2007 Orange Bowl before taking the Falcons job.
Ryan Mallett is the latest quarterback Petrino has been able to develop at a high level. The sophomore, who sat out last season following his transfer from Michigan, threw for 3,422 yards and 29 touchdowns with seven interceptions and was a Manning Award finalist as one of the top signal-callers in the country.
"When I was a kid, I watched Arkansas play in big bowl games and I'm excited to be a part of that tradition," Mallett said. "Our goal now is to take the next few weeks to focus on preparing for this game and then go to Memphis to win it."
Mallett broke or tied 16 school records, and Arkansas set a school mark with 3,640 passing yards.
The Liberty Bowl will also serve as a trial by fire for newly promoted offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, who was quarterbacks coach before Petrino promoted him Dec. 14 to succeed his brother Paul Petrino -- now the offensive coordinator at Illinois. The two installed the spread offense McGee installed at Northwestern, so continuity should not be a concern.
The Razorbacks scored at least 30 points in nine of their 12 games and averaged 44.8 points and 471.4 yards in the final five. They have a balanced attack, as four players have rushed for at least 300 yards and five receivers have at least 300.
This is the first meeting between these schools.