It feels like it's in his bones, that wonderfully old-school matchup of former Southwest Conference rivals.
"How much better can you get than that?" he said. "A little Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles and voices from the past."
Bielema is smitten. The big, burly head coach of the Razorbacks has an equal in Texas coach Charlie Strong. Standing side-by-side, the two embody the kind of physical, smash-mouth football they've built their careers on. Their broad shoulders could span continents. Their sheer mass could halt elevators.
But let's face it, that's just window dressing. It makes for a great AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl and it should draw a large audience, but the impact of the game goes well beyond that.
Just read what Bielema said of his priorities for the bowl season.
"We have three goals," he said. "We want to develop our younger players in these practices that are going to return, the guys that are going to be the meat and potatoes of what we are next year; we have to put in a great game plan and execute it on the 29th against Texas; and hopefully from that game the third thing is to carry great momentum into 2015 and continue to build our brand."
Tucked in between thoughts of next year is the idea of winning the only football game remaining in 2014.
"It's a fine line," Bielema said of the difference between finishing 7-6 or 6-7, "but it's one that we hope to cross."
Rather than focusing solely on the outcome, what's important to Arkansas is its continued ascent in the SEC. After going winless in conference play for two years, the program broke through with wins against Ole Miss and LSU. Now it's about continuing to get better.
A week after its berth in the Texas Bowl was announced, Bielema gathered coaches together to lay out the schedule of bowl practices. In it, he said he targeted "22 players that are going to be returning on this year's roster that haven't been huge influences in the games yet."
He looked at those on the outside looking in: Special teams players, guys buried on the two-deep depth chart, players who had been redshirted and "have gotten comfortable and just passed time."
"If I can get those 22 guys to understand the urgency of our preparation, we'll make a huge stride there and that will give coaches a better understanding in the spring of what we need to do," he said.
Curious who those 22 are? Bielema elaborated.
On defense, he mentioned Armon Watts, Jake Hall, Tevin Beanum, Anthony Brown, Dwayne Eugene, Henre' Toliver, Santos Ramirez and Cornelius Floyd.
On offense, he wanted to see Brian Wallace, a "tremendous talent" who had been the No. 2 right tackle all season. He spotlighted tight end Jack Kraus and said he had "tremendous upside." Jared Cornelius, Kendrick Edwards, Juan Day and Tyler Colquitt were also under the microscope.
A handful of practices were dedicated to that next generation of players where juniors and seniors didn't even have to dress out.
"We just never got our throwing game where we needed it to," Bielema said, reflecting on the state of the offense this season. "Our tight ends made a nice jump, but we need to continue to build our wide receiver corps, whether it be through recruiting -- we're trying to add a couple of guys who can make difference, a couple of in-state prospects we're going well on that can help us immediately -- and then the development of our current roster. Those guys are going to be a big, big part of our offense making the next jump."
Ultimately, whether its the seniors ending their careers or the youngsters just beginning theirs, both are served best by a win against Texas.
But, in fact, the momentum is already there for Arkansas.
Just look at the impact on the recruiting trail, where the Razorbacks are ranked No. 21 in ESPN's current class rankings compared to its finish of No. 30 overall in their last signing class.
"It's blown me away," Bielema said of the change in Arkansas' perception from six months ago. "It's not just local. Texas, Louisiana, Florida, we've gone into Indianapolis, we've gone into Utah, we've gone into California. We'll always base our recruiting efforts on Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, dabble into Missouri a little bit and get into Florida, but our national presence is felt."
It's an old-school, regional game, Texas versus Arkansas. But for both programs the hope is to expand beyond that.
The difference between finishing above .500 and below it is one thing. Taking the next step and pushing into the realm of contending for championships is another.
Key losses: RB Malcolm Brown, LB Jordan Hicks, DB Quandre Diggs, WR John Harris, WR Jaxon Shipley, LB Steve Edmond, DT Malcom Brown*
- All West Virginia eyes will be on sophomore quarterback Skyler Howard today in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl with Clint Trickett's football career finished because of concussions. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Stephen J. Nesbitt writes that the sky is the limit for Howard, who has improved dramatically over the past two months. The Charleston Gazette's Dave Hickman points out that Howard's running ability has added another dimension the West Virginia offense lacked when Trickett was behind center. And the Charleston Daily Mail's Mike Casazza notes that Howard has continued to show poise in the bowl practices, even with the first-team defense blitzing and trash-talking him. The Mountaineers will have other quarterback options in 2015, including William Crest, who actually beat out Howard for the backup job as a true freshman back in the preseason. But Howard can take a big step forward toward winning the permanent job with a big performance against the Aggies.
- As the Sooners prepare to play Clemson today in the Russell Athletic Bowl, the Oklahoma football monster is growing hungry and angry, in the opinion of Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman. As Tramel points out, Oklahoma hasn’t won a Big 12 title since 2012. Hasn’t won an outright Big 12 title since 2010. Hasn’t played in the national championship game since 2008. Hasn’t finished with the Big 12’s best conference record since 2006. Hasn’t won the national title since 2000. That isn't good enough for a fan base that, whether always reasonable or not, demands more. After the most disappointing season of the Bob Stoops era, the Sooners could really use a win in the bowl. Because without a little feeding, the monster will only grow hungrier and angrier in a pivotal offseason in Norman.
- The Dallas Morning News' Chuck Carlton believes the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl against Arkansas tonight will carry plenty of meaning for Texas coach Charlie Strong. A record of 7-6 does look better than 6-7. But at Texas, 7-6 still doesn't look all that good. A win over the Hogs could serve as a springboard for Strong heading into 2015. But regardless of what happens in this bowl, the bottom line is the Longhorns will need to be better in Strong's second season.
- Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy gave a candid interview with the Tulsa World's Bill Haisten on a series of topics, including his relationships with athletic director Mike Holder and mega-booster T. Boone Pickens. In it Gundy admitted he hasn't spoken with Pickens much since a contract negotiation three years ago. "We haven’t really had any communication," Gundy said. "I don’t know what his thought is, but I would like for there to be more communication." Haisten then asks Gundy why he doesn't just call Pickens this week to set up a meeting. Gundy says he would, but then goes on a tangent about things he can't control. I've said for weeks this whole spat comes off as childish. Maybe I don't know the whole story. But it seems silly that Gundy and Pickens can't get in the same room and work all this out. Both have been important to rise of the football program. Why neither side can acknowledge this defies reason to me.
- According to Courtney Cronin of the Clarion-Ledger, the Horned Frogs have something to prove in Wednesday's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. "We're trying to put on for the Big 12 and show that we play a good brand of football as well," said cornerback Kevin White. "It's definitely a stepping stone for us to show off our talents." As a senior, White will actually be finished at TCU after the bowl. But he is right about this game being a stepping stone. A win against Ole Miss in a New Year's Six bowl would help vindicate the strength of the Big 12 at the top. And, given that the Horned Frogs have 10 starters coming back on offense, it would help establish TCU as a viable national title contender for 2015.
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Do you like defense? If so, this might be the bowl game for you. As expected, Texas enjoyed a defensive revival in 2014 under first-year coach Charlie Strong. The Longhorns finished No. 1 in the Big 12 in total defense, pass defense and sacks and rank No. 8 nationally in yards per play allowed. Arkansas isn't playing in this game or any bowl without its defense, which shut out both Ole Miss and LSU to reach six wins. The Hogs also held Alabama and Mississippi State to 14 and 17 points, respectively. The odds of this matchup ending in a low-scoring brawl look pretty decent.
Do you like running backs? Arkansas and Texas do. Bret Bielema built his Arkansas team around the only duo of 1,000-yard rushers (Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins) in the FBS. Their most impressive game together? The 437-yard showing at Texas Tech. Texas thought it would have a pair of 1,000-yarders in Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray but never had the O-line to sustain such success. Getting that inexperienced line a month of bowl practices and recovery time ought to help. Expect stacked boxes all night long in Houston.
Winning season vs. losing season: The one-game stakes for Arkansas and Texas are pretty simple. One team finishes 7-6; one team ends up 6-7. The Razorbacks just survived arguably the toughest schedule in the country, with seven SEC foes that won eight-plus games (combined record of their SEC opponents: 73-25). A win Monday would be a just reward for a team that had to fight for everything. Same for Texas, a squad that has played better than its 6-6 record indicates and came close to stunning UCLA and Oklahoma at neutral sites. (Plus the Horns have this bonus motivation.) Both teams will get up for this one, but who has enough left in the tank?
Well, after that photo went viral, people started calling it awesome, and then fake. Posts about it being photoshopped littered the Internet, and then Arkansas radio host Bo Mattingly tweeted that he talked to Bielema after practice about the "Horns down" move. Bielema denied doing it.
Ran into Bret Bielema at practice and he says he did not do the "horns down" in photo with Charlie Strong. Appears to have been photoshopped— Bo Mattingly (@SportsTalkwBo) December 27, 2014
OK, case closed ... right?
Here we have more evidence about the hand gesture through this Vine:
Right at the end you can clearly see Bielema move his fingers into the shape of the "Horns down" sign. Now, whether this was intentional or not, we don't know. Maybe, he had no clue what he was doing. Maybe, it was a brilliant troll move by a coach who isn't new to having fun or throwing a little shade toward his opponents.
Regardless, it's fun water-cooler talk before the Razorbacks take on the Longhorns in the Texas Bowl on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET.
That, Charlie Strong says, was the cleaned-up gist of his animated speech to Tyrone Swoopes before the second quarter against TCU began.
Toward the end of his quick 12-second lecture, Strong pointed a finger right at the Texas quarterback’s chest just to ensure the message was delivered.
“I just told him he has to play,” Strong said after the 48-10 loss. “You can't turn the football over. You can't get down on yourself. It's all about his demeanor.”
A month later, Swoopes’ rocky first year as the Longhorns’ starter reaches a finale that will further define how his 2014 is remembered and perhaps how 2015 is resolved. Like the rest of his 11 starts, Swoopes’ showing against Arkansas on Monday night in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl is sure to get overanalyzed for months to come.
The sophomore, thrown into an unexpected starting role with unfair expectations when David Ash went down, calls what he has endured an “up-and-down experience.” The peaks required patience. The valleys required thick skin.
“You definitely have to have that, playing quarterback at a big school like this,” Swoopes said this month.
Strong and co-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson never publicly wavered this fall when it came to their faith in Swoopes. They had no other option, of course, but Swoopes never burned them either. He had tough days in losses to Baylor and Kansas State, but never so tough that a benching was considered. Not until the TCU game.
“I know that game wasn’t me,” Swoopes said.
His performance against the Horned Frogs left frustrated fans wondering whether Swoopes is the long-term answer and offered confirmation to table-pounding critics that he’s not the one meant to lead Texas back to championship-level football.
Granted, we’re talking about a second-year player taking on a top-six team, but the setback did seem significant. How is Swoopes going to respond? He knows all the right things to say about what comes next.
“Keep my head up, learn from it, put it behind me, don’t let it get to me too much, use it as motivation,” he said.
Senior receiver John Harris senses Swoopes gets too down on himself when things aren’t going his way, which was evident against TCU. But the go-to receiver also has witnessed growth at every step of the season and expects even more now.
“I think it’s good for him to learn this way,” Harris said.
So much of Swoopes’ play hinges on his confidence. On his best days – road showings against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State stand out – he went out and proved as much to himself as anyone else. Watson treats Swoopes like a freshman because he had so little meaningful experience and so much to learn.
Against Arkansas and its top-25 defense, we might learn just how resilient Swoopes can be. But win or lose, he will have to fight for his job next year.
Strong and Watson have repeatedly said they crave competition at the QB spot. The situation they have right now – a sophomore starting, true freshman Jerrod Heard learning slowly and redshirting, walk-ons Logan Vinklarek and Trey Holtz the only real backup options – won’t cut it.
Competition, they hope, is the best path to pushing Swoopes this offseason. The incumbent must be made uncomfortable by peers capable of challenging him. Whether that’s coming from Heard, ESPN 300 commit Zach Gentry or some other arm remains unclear.
For now, all that’s certain is Monday’s bowl game is another test that can propel Swoopes into the offseason and beyond in ways nobody can foresee.
“He’ll be fine,” Strong said. “The thing about it, he just needs to play well this next one. He’s just got to move on and just get better, and he’ll get better, and it will happen for him.”
But only Swoopes can make it happen.
But any more in college football, they only tell a small portion of the story.
With the rise of the hurry-up offense, some defenses have to face more plays or defend more possessions than others. By default, a defense that has to defend 100 plays is usually going to give up more yards and points than the defense that has to defend 70 plays.
With that in mind, ESPN Stats & Information keeps track of a pair of metrics that better define how a defense performs: The yards a defense allows per play; and the points a defense gives up per drive. Factor in a third category -- turnovers gained -- and you have a better account of who is actually playing good defense. And who is not.
Below, we will examine those three statistics and average them out to provide a more accurate representation of Big 12 defense rankings for 2014 (also, in the interest of keeping a level playing field, only conference games were evaluated):
Yards per play
- 1. Texas: 4.83
- 2. West Virginia: 5.28
- 3. TCU: 5.41
- 4. Kansas State: 5.51
- 5. Oklahoma: 5.58
- 6. Baylor: 5.70
- 7. Oklahoma State: 5.94
- 8. Kansas: 6.31
- 9. Texas Tech: 6.63
- 10. Iowa State: 6.81
- 1. Texas: 1.30
- 2. TCU: 1.50
- 3. West Virginia: 1.65
- 4. Kansas State: 1.73
- 5. Oklahoma: 1.92
- 6. Baylor: 1.99
- 7. Oklahoma State: 2.40
- 8. Kansas: 2.47
- 9. Iowa State: 2.82
- 10. Texas Tech: 2.98
- 1. TCU: 26
- 2. Baylor: 19
- 3. Kansas State: 18
- 4 (tie). Kansas: 15
- 4 (tie). Texas : 15
- 6. Iowa State: 14
- 7. Texas Tech: 13
- 8 (tie). Oklahoma: 11
- 8 (tie). West Virginia: 11
- 10. Oklahoma State: 9
- 1. TCU: 2.0 (average rank)
- 2. Texas: 2.2 (average rank)
- 3. Kansas State: 3.7
- 4. West Virginia: 4.5
- 5. Baylor: 4.7
- 6. Oklahoma: 6.2
- 7. Kansas: 6.8
- 8. Oklahoma State : 8.0
- 9. Iowa State: 8.3
- 10. Texas Tech: 8.7
Here's to everyone having a Merry Christmas.
Now, on to the 'bag;
@Jake_Trotter: It's probably a wash. Considering the Bears still have coach Art Briles and a veteran quarterback in Bryce Petty, I don't think not having Phillip Montgomery will have a major effect on the offense. Briles has established a culture of scoring that goes beyond any one assistant or player. Likewise, Michigan State has implemented a culture of defense under Mark Dantonio. Pat Narduzzi has been a fabulous coordinator. But just because he won't be in Arlington doesn't mean the Spartans will forget how to play defense. I still expect this to be an epic clash of irresistible offense vs. immovable defense.
Trotter: From a list of West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State, I would have to go with the Cowboys. Oklahoma State appears to have uncovered its long-term answer at quarterback in Mason Rudolph, who was terrific in his two starts to cap the regular season. Oklahoma State will also return its entire receiving corps, as well as eight starters defensively. With TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State all headed to Stillwater next season, the schedule lines up for the Cowboys to make a bounce-back run at the conference crown.
@Jake_Trotter do you see expansion on our horizon?— Jake Perry© (@JakePerry56) December 23, 2014
Trotter: For the first time this football season, I went to the movies over the weekend and saw "Interstellar." So if by "horizon" you mean the wormhole next to the rings of Saturn, then yes, expansion is on the horizon.
@Jake_Trotter what is the percent of probability, in your opinion, that UCF joins the Big 12 in the next 3 years?— Eli Fried (@elisfkc) December 23, 2014
Trotter: Highly unlikely, considering any expansion is highly unlikely. That said, commissioner Bob Bowlsby has indicated in recent days that if the Big 12 ever expanded, it would look east instead of west. That would seemingly put UCF in play, as one of the top available schools to the east. I'm not sure how a Big 12 school in Florida would work. Then again, the Big 12 really has no convenient options left when it comes to expansion.
@Jake_Trotter tech DC thoughts? Who might it b? Ideas on where President is leaning?— Brian Martin (@gunsupbm) December 23, 2014
Trotter: It's possible Chad President ends up in Lubbock. After losing Jarrett Stidham to Baylor, Texas Tech needs a quarterback for this class, and President needs a new team after de-committing from Baylor. But Tech won't be the only Big 12 school that goes after him. Highly ranked quarterbacks (even quarterbacks that could end up as college receivers) usually aren't available this late in the recruiting game. So President will be in demand. As for the Tech defensive coordinator search, Houston's David Gibbs is at the top of the list. Even though Houston finished just fifth in the American, the Cougars have improved defensively under Gibbs, ranking 11th in scoring defense this season. A former defensive coordinator at Minnesota and Auburn, Gibbs is the kind of veteran coordinator Kliff Kingsbury needs to add to his staff.
@Jake_Trotter if you could put a percentage on it, what are the odds Daylon Mack ends up in a TCU uniform?— Chris Conaty (@Con_Man95) December 23, 2014
Trotter: After de-committing from Texas A&M, Daylon Mack tweeted that TCU and LSU were his top two schools. He is apparently scheduled to take an official visit Texas on Jan. 23, which could change things. But I would think TCU's odds of landing Mack at this point are at least 33 percent.
Trotter: Huge bummer. This, by the way, was his farewell letter. In memoriam, below was a great moment in @FauxHolgorsen history...
Trotter: This one is easy ...
There is plenty at stake when these 6-6 teams square off at Houston's NRG Stadium on Monday night. Pretty simple, really: One team goes home with a winning record, the other doesn't. Which team will embrace the momentum-building moment?
ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf and Max Olson break down the matchup.
How Arkansas can control the game: Run the ball and control the clock. This has been Arkansas’ strength all season. The Razorbacks have 14 touchdown drives of five minutes or longer, second most in the FBS behind only Georgia Tech. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins each have more than 1,000 yards rushing. No other FBS team can say that. When the Razorbacks are gashing the opponent on the ground, they are hard to stop. -- Ostendorf
How Texas can control the game: Charlie Strong wins games with his stout defense, and when this group forces turnovers it can be awfully tough to beat. Texas had the Big 12's No. 1 total defense and pass defense, and the pressure that Malcom Brown, Hassan Ridgeway and Cedric Reed get up front ought to make running the ball a challenge at times. It's a bend-don't-break defense that will keep this game relatively low-scoring. -- Olson
Arkansas' X-factor: Trey Flowers has been a quarterback’s nightmare this season. The senior defensive end has 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and nine quarterback hurries. When he’s not chasing him down, he’s batting the ball down at the line of scrimmage. He has been the heart and soul of an Arkansas defense that allowed only 9.5 points per game in the month of November, and this will be his final game in a Razorbacks’ uniform. -- Ostendorf
Texas' X-factor: The play of Tyrone Swoopes, obviously. His five-turnover showing against TCU gave the Longhorns no shot and raised doubts among the fan base about whether he's "the guy" for the future. Swoopes can kill those questions with a bounce-back showing. He had one of the finest performances of his career (305 yards, two TDs, 72 percent passing) against Oklahoma State right before facing the Frogs. Can he bring his best against the Hogs? -- Olson
What a win would mean for the Razorbacks: The rebuilding process at Arkansas took a big step this season under second-year coach Bret Bielema. The Hogs won an SEC game, nearly knocked off the eventual conference champion, and now they are playing in a bowl game. A win could propel them into next season and validate them as a contender in 2015. -- Ostendorf
What a win would mean for Texas: The Longhorns got their recruiting momentum rolling last week with a commitment from elite linebacker Malik Jefferson. This 'W' can get the rest of the program rolling. An important win would aid an important offseason for growth, and the Horns badly need to move past the buzzkill of getting beat up by TCU. -- Olson
Nick in Las Vegas, Nevada writes: In online chatter people suggest that schools such as TCU & Baylor will never be allowed to play for a National Championship due to being small private schools. Do you think there is any merit to this "anti-small school" theory?
Brandon Chatmon: Not really. Say Florida State and Ohio State lost in their title games, what would have happened then? The committee just jumps Michigan State or Ole Miss or whoever into the top four? Now, I do think the committee needs to re-evaluate how it does things, because Baylor should have been in the top four, but I don’t think the Bears were left out because the committee is "anti-small school." The Bears were left out because the committee decided Ohio State was the better team. We’ll see if the committee was right and I was wrong.
Connor in Beaumont, Texas writes: A big issue with Texas' offense is that the quarterbacks that have been recruited over the last couple of years (Swoopes, Heard) have little to no experience in a "pro-style offense." Meanwhile the rest of the country is running spread and it's working. What are the implications of changing offensive philosophy? Can it be done for just one season or a couple?
BC: It doesn't matter the type of offense Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard ran in high school. Either they are playmakers or they aren’t. Now, changing the philosophy does have an impact as it can limit your options on the recruiting trail with limited options at tight end, fullback, etc... But that shouldn’t matter much at Texas. I think coach Charlie Strong’s focus is more on being a physical running team more than a "pro-style offense" and it’s important to note that running a spread-style passing offense doesn’t mean you can’t have a physical, tough running game. In fact, Baylor and TCU averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game in 2014. If I was a Longhorns fan, it would be more important to me that our offense changes organically each year to adapt to the best players on the offense, including the best playmaking option at quarterback.
Catalokie in Tulsa, Oklahoma writes: I know there's a lot of relief about Trevor Knight under center for the Sooners' bowl game, I'm thrilled he's healthy, but what about next season? Knight hasn't always shown the consistency he was applauded for after the Alabama game. Might Baker Mayfield top Knight for the starting job?
BC: I wouldn’t be surprised if Baker Mayfield becomes a starter at Oklahoma, and I expect a pretty good battle to start during the offseason. Knight’s status as the future at quarterback in Norman has changed from unquestioned to unclear, that’s the only thing I’m certain about.
Omar in Flower Mound, Texas writes: Can you explain to me why Trevone Boykin didn't even get invited to the New York, I feel like every other year they always bring in at least 4 people if not more. I don't think he should or would have beaten out Marcus Mariota for it, but I definitely would have picked him over Amari Cooper or Melvin Gordon. Your thoughts?
BC: Inviting four finalists to New York is not the norm, Omar. I thought Trevone Boykin had a great year as the catalyst to TCU’s turnaround, he was exceptional in every way. But I didn’t pick him to win the Heisman. I voted Mariota, Cooper then Boykin, and that was harder than I expected to pick between Mariota and Cooper, but Boykin was below that pair in my eyes. I agree he probably should have been in New York though.
Tyler in Waco, Texas writes: Reading your most recent mailbag, one thing that stuck out to me was this idea that if FSU and OSU both lost in championship week, but the Big 12 had chosen their "One True Champion" in Baylor, that TCU would have been left out of the Playoff at 11-1 for some other team. I just don't see that happening at all. Even without their "co-champs" label, would a two-loss Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, or Mississippi State really have made it ahead of TCU? I just don't see that happening. I may just irrationally hate Bowlsby, and maybe what he did was the right call in some scenarios, but I just can't see how an 11-1 TCU doesn't make the playoff, even without the "Co-Champ" title.
BC: I pretty much agree with what you’re saying Tyler, that’s why I’ve said I would have handled it differently and named Baylor as the Big 12’s champion. Yet we have to remember, in the weeks leading up to the selection, the committee was steadily dropping undefeated Florida State in favor of one-loss teams. Why wouldn’t it consider jumping any two-loss team it wanted ahead of TCU? I doubt it would have happened, but I doubted TCU would be ranked No. 3, win by 50 points and drop to No. 6, so ...
Daniel Drummond in Houston writes: Brandon, what can the Big 12 do to get better representation on the CFP committee? The Big Ten and Pac 12 had a lot of ties to the committee, but the Big XII was notably excluded, and more than a few people think that played into the decision to keep Baylor and TCU out.
BC: Obviously with Oliver Luck’s departure to the NCAA that leaves an opening in the committee, and I’d agree with fellow Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter that Texas Tech’s Kirby Hocutt would be a great fit with his experience at various Big 12 schools and overall understandings of the dynamics of the Big 12 region. He would be a terrific first step. But I must say issues like this are the reason I'm hoping for a expanded playoffs in the near future. I mean, could you imagine if a committee decided who makes the NFL playoffs?
What is the biggest key for West Virginia?
Chatmon: Kevin White ’s return to the dominating force that caused all sorts of problems for West Virginia’s early season opponents would help, particularly if he can do it against double teams. But it will be the Mountaineers’ pass defense, led by cornerback Daryl Worley, that could decide the game. Facing the SEC’s top passing offense, WVU’s secondary has talent but faces a tall task against a Texas A&M offense that featured five different receivers that passed 400 receiving yards in the regular season. Thus, it will take a solid pass rush and strong performances from the WVU secondary to slow down the Aggies.
Olson: Don't overlook the reason why Texas A&M is searching for a new defensive coordinator. The Aggies allowed 298, 363, 335 and 384 rushing yards in their final four SEC games. The formula for beating them up late in the season was pretty obvious. With West Virginia's line healthy again, the Mountaineers should ride Rushel Shell, Wendell Smallwood and Dreamius Smith and take advantage of the passing looks the run game sets up.
Trotter: Get Kevin White going early and often. The Aggies had one of the worst pass defenses in the SEC this year, and they have no one (who does?) who can physically match up with White. If the Mountaineers can devise ways to get White -- and wingman Mario Alford -- opportunities for big plays early, they can put A&M on its heels for the rest of the game.
What is the biggest key for Oklahoma?
Chatmon: Quite simply the Sooners' offensive line must win in the trenches. OU’s offensive front is among the nation’s top units but will face a fast, physical and athletic Clemson defense with all the traits to slow down OU’s offense. Offensive balance will be key, as well as winning on first down. The Sooners averaged 7.94 yards per first-down play in their eight wins. That number dropped to 6.13 yards per first-down play in their four losses. If OU faces a game full of third down-and-long plays, it could be a long 60 minutes.
Olson: It's not just about winning the trenches for Oklahoma. The protection of Trevor Knight is of the upmost importance against Clemson. I'm no expert on transient quadriplegia -- nor had I ever heard of it prior to Knight's injury against Baylor -- and I trust that OU was extremely careful with its testing to deem Knight cleared to play. But you know he will take tough hits in his first game back, and after such a jarring injury, you'd hope his line can keep him clean and playing without fear of getting hurt again.
Trotter: Clemson owns one of the best statistical defense in the country, which could put points at a premium for the Oklahoma offense. That's why it's imperative that the Sooners' defense shows up in this game. The Tigers aren't great offensively, so the Sooners ought to be able to impose their will. Then again, this is an Oklahoma defense that massively underachieved during the last two months of the season.
What is the biggest key for Texas?
Chatmon: The formula has been pretty simple for the Longhorns. When Charlie Strong’s team wins the turnover battle, it wins the game. When it loses the turnover battle it heads into the locker room full of disappointment. Arkansas did a decent job protecting the ball, with 17 turnovers in 12 games, but the Razorbacks' 11 fumbles provides some hope for the Longhorns to get one or two turnovers. More importantly, UT and quarterback Tyrone Swoopes must protect the ball much better than they did against TCU and give themselves a chance.
Olson: This might sound like a strange request, but I want to see Texas finally show up in the third quarter and score some points. The Horns put up a total of nine points in the third period in Big 12 play. Nine. After nine games that's not some anomaly; it's a weakness and a strange one. Arkansas is going to play UT close and has had real trouble scoring in the second half (7.5 ppg in SEC play). Any points Texas can muster after halftime could make all the difference.
Trotter: Whoever wins the battle in the trenches between the Arkansas offensive line and the Texas defensive front probably is going to win this game. When the Hogs struggled to run the ball this year they struggled to score. But when they got the run game going they were difficult to beat. Texas has the horses with Malcom Brown and Co. to win the battle with the Razorbacks up front. If the Longhorns do, odds are they'll also end their season with a win.
“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.
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.”
ESPN Films Presents: Nixon's National Champs - Nixon vs. Paterno
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
Final Marshall 52 Northern Illinois 23 Final Navy 17 San Diego State 16
Final Central Michigan 48 Western Kentucky 49 Final Fresno State 6 Rice 30
Final Illinois 18 Louisiana Tech 35 Final Rutgers 40 North Carolina 21 Final North Carolina State 34 UCF 27
Final Cincinnati 17 Virginia Tech 33 Final 15 Arizona State 36 Duke 31 Final Miami (FL) 21 South Carolina 24 Final/OT Boston College 30 Penn State 31 Final Nebraska 42 24 USC 45
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State