ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS (6-6) vs. TEXAS LONGHORNS (6-6)
DEC. 29, 9 P.M. ET, NRG STADIUM, HOUSTON (ESPN)
Season highlights: The Razorbacks finally handed Bret Bielema his first SEC win on Nov. 15 when they shut out LSU 17-0, ending the program’s 17-game conference losing streak. As soon as the game ended, Arkansas players rushed across the field en masse to hoist the Golden Boot trophy that goes to the LSU-Arkansas winner. It was a moment of pure bliss for a program that desperately wanted to prove it was moving in the right direction under its second-year coach.
Season lowlights: Arkansas kept suffering near-misses early in the season, falling in overtime against Texas A&M, being beaten 14-13 by Alabama and losing by a touchdown to Mississippi State. The Razorbacks’ one awful performance during the season came against Georgia, when they trailed 38-6 at halftime before eventually falling 45-32.
Player to watch: Jonathan Williams. Teaming with Alex Collins to give Arkansas one of the SEC’s best rushing attacks, Williams led the team with 1,085 rushing yards and ran for 11 touchdowns. Collins isn’t far behind with 1,024 rushing yards and 12 scores. Between that duo and a tough offensive line, the Razorbacks have a ground game that is difficult for any opponent to stop.
Motivation factor: Arkansas was 3-4 after the Georgia loss and had games remaining against UAB, Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri. That didn’t look like a positive sign, as the Razorbacks needed three more wins to play in a bowl game. They finally broke through by shutting out both LSU and Ole Miss, with the second of those wins achieving bowl eligibility and Arkansas’ first postseason appearance since 2011.
-- David Ching
Season highlights: Charlie Strong never promised a playoff contender in Year 1. He did promise Texas would play some defense. He turned the Longhorns' D into a top-15 unit nationally in yards per play, pass defense, sacks and goal-line stops. The Horns developed one of the nation’s top linemen, defensive tackle Malcom Brown, and assembled a defense that was responsible for allowing 23.4 points per game in Big 12 play. During a three-game win streak to clinch bowl eligibility, Texas finally put it all together and emerged as a physical, tough-to-beat squad.
Season lowlights: It’s been a rocky road. Texas lost quarterback David Ash to a career-ending concussion. Center Dominic Espinosa and nose tackle Desmond Jackson were lost for the season in nonconference play. Expected starting offensive tackles Desmond Harrison (suspension) and Kennedy Estelle (dismissal) were gone too. Their absences set Texas up to fail early and lose five of its first eight games. Close calls against UCLA and Oklahoma were encouraging. Blowout losses to BYU, Baylor and Kansas State were embarrassing. So was Texas’ 48-10 implosion against TCU on Thanksgiving.
Player to watch: Is Tyrone Swoopes playing for his job in the bowl? Strong and co-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson won’t say that, but they have repeatedly said they need more competition at the quarterback position. They will find some this offseason, and Swoopes will be challenged to take a big step in the spring. Can he bounce back from his five-turnover performance against TCU and end an up-and-down first season as a starter on a positive note?
Motivation factor: Significant, especially for the future. Giving star seniors like Quandre Diggs, Jordan Hicks, Cedric Reed and John Harris a win on the way out would be great. They have endured plenty at UT through all the coaching changes. But Texas also has another shot to do what it couldn’t against the Horned Frogs. A big win means momentum for offseason workouts, recruiting and further affirmation that Strong has Texas heading in the right direction.
-- Max Olson