When Texas coach Charlie Strong looks across the field to see a pair of 1,000-yard rushers on Bret Bielema’s team during the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl, it will be hard for him not to be envious.
“If you can get that, you can win,” Strong said. “When you get the two 1,000-yard rushers, you know you're a physical football team and you're running the ball. It is all about ball control.”
Arkansas is in Year 2 of the Bret Bielema project, with the former Wisconsin head coach’s blueprint starting to see dividends with a bowl appearance, a pair of shutouts in Arkansas’ final three games, and one of the SEC’s best running games serving as the foundation. Johnathan Williams (1,085 rushing yards) and Alex Collins (1,024 rushing yards) have paced the SEC’s No.4-ranked running game heading into the meeting with its former Southwest Conference foe.
As envious as he might be, Strong has a blueprint of his own. From his highly publicized rules to his straight-laced honesty, the Longhorns CEO has shown he’s going to do it his way, with little regard to others' thoughts on the matter.
While Strong’s plan is different than Bielema’s blueprint, the similarities are stark. In an era of high-scoring offenses, big plays and offensive fireworks, Strong and Bielema aim to build around physical, running offenses that can control the game along with tough, versatile defenses than can adapt to the flurry of different styles present on any given Saturday.
UT wants to be known for its toughness, with a physical running gameone of the clearest signs of a team’s physicality. The Longhorns have a long way to go, averaging 146.67 rushing yards per game in 2014. UT averaged 176.33 rushing yards per game in its six wins and 121 rushing yards per game in six losses, including three games of less than 100 rushing yards.
“[We] could have played a lot better than what we played,” Strong said. “We lose six games, [that] would never be a standard here. We could have played a lot better at times than what we did. I think about those close games we were in.”
It’s a similarity Strong’s team shares with Arkansas, another sign both blueprints are starting to work despite being in the infant stages of their instillation. Both teams lost six games but can look back at the regular season and see an eight- or nine-win season just outside their grasp. The Longhorns can look back at games against UCLA, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma as opportunities left on the table. The Razorbacks can look back at losses to Alabama, Mississippi State and Missouri and say the same.
“I think it's a really good football team,” Strong said. “But, at the right time, they didn't win those close games.”
Strong was talking about his opponent but might as well have been talking about his own squad. Many people point to the dismissals and departures that followed Strong’s installation of his rules as the culprit in the .500 season.
“It had nothing to do with the guys who we didn't have,” Strong said. “You're going to win with the ones you have and not with the ones you don't have. So with a lot of those players not being with us, playing with what we had, we were good enough. We just didn't play well. We didn't play well at the right time.”
Change didn’t come, but it was needed. UT took some lumps early this season with the hopes of a later payoff. That came in the form of three wins in the Longhorns’ final four games to secure bowl eligibility.
“I think that we needed him,” offensive lineman Sedrick Flowers said of his coach. “He came in here, and he's made us all humble ourselves. I know when I first got here, I wouldn't say I was an arrogant person, but in the program there was some arrogance. There were some players that were entitled, and he came in here and just took that all away. Everybody is on the same level. We all just want to work and get a championship.”
The foundation has been set, but the concrete is still drying. The will to have a physical running game is apparent, but UT’s 3.91 yards per carry, ranking No. 85 among FBS teams, is not the standard that will lead to championships or make anyone envious.
“Physicality is what we pride ourselves on,” tight end Geoff Swaim said. “Anytime you can impose your will on another team, it makes your job easier, makes the defense's job easier. I don't really get into the whole run/pass, all that kind of stuff. It's more about who can be more physical, who can do their job the best and which team is tougher.
“That's what we want to be and that's who we strive to be. It's a growing process. It's never something you just say this is who you are and it just becomes that. That develops and that develops; not only this year, but it'll develop next year and it'll just keep growing.”