Jim Harris: Longhorns Haven’t Seen Speed, Power Hogs Faced in SEC


HOUSTON — Arkansas and Texas appear even in many areas, right down to those 6-6 overall records that have brought the two programs together for the 78th time and the second time in a bowl game: tonight’s Texas Bowl.

Neither team has the kind of depth they enjoyed in their heydays of modern football in the old Southwest Conference — and, make no mistake, the Razorbacks never had the plethora of talent the Longhorns possessed year after year, but the Hogs still managed to make a game of it more often than not.

Now, we have two nationally recognized programs on the way back. Arkansas has had a bigger mountain to climb the past two years, but in both seasons under Bret Bielema the Hogs improved as the toughs seasons wore on, and this one featured back-to-back Southeastern Conference shutouts in games 10-11; Arkansas native Charlie Strong weathered tons of early criticism from the biggest of boosters to the lowliest of ’Horns fans almost from his hiring before getting Texas to play its best football in games nine through 11.

Neither team finished the regular season the way it wanted. Arkansas’s injury luck, unusually good for most of the year, ran out with junior quarterback Brandon Allen hobbled, and the Hogs let a game get away in Columbia, Mo. Add that one to at least three other games in SEC play that the Razorbacks were in good position to win but failed.

Imagine the excitement around the program during this holiday season, with Arkansas’s success being celebrated in Florida perhaps instead of here, if it had all gone near-perfect, those close losses turning out to be close wins and Bret Bielema with a “Coach of the Year” season of 10 wins in year two.

The adage that “if,” or “should have” and all that, as it’s long been said, is on the scoreboard. Arkansas was 6-6 and there won’t be an asterisk next to the record saying “but the Hogs nearly won four more.” Perhaps, however, those close calls and help Arkansas can benefit tonight and into 2015.

Texas, meanwhile, can’t look at many of its six losses and say, “what if?” BYU early and TCU at the end blew out the ’Horns. Kansas State manhandled Texas 23-0. While Baylor didn’t go offensively nuts against the Longhorns and run up 40-plus points like the Bears typicall do — that says tons about Texas’ improvement on defense under Strong — Baylor still won 28-7. Maybe the Longhorns’ best game was an all-around solid 33-16 pounding of West Virginia.

The only comparable team for Arkansas and Texas is Texas Tech, which both beat by 21. Arkansas did it totally on the ground, the way Texas teams of yesteryear used to bulldoze SWC foes with the wishbone: run after run after run, eventually breaking long ones. Texas spread out the defenseless Red Raiders and nickel-and-dimed them to death.

If there is one noticeable area of difference between Arkansas and Texas, it’s in the offensive lines. Take Texas’ inability to block Kansas State for an example. The Longhorns didn’t go up against the type of defensive fronts that Arkansas saw week after week. If Texas had even a near-vintage O-line, you’d certainly see better run-yardage totals from backs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, who both didn’t break 700 yards. Gray, a junior, was an all-world, Parade All-American prospect out of high school.

Meanwhile, behind a mostly young and developing offensive line, Arkansas’ Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins both cracked the 1,000-yard barrier.

One other notable difference in the teams is the play at quarterback. Let’s be honest, here: Neither are exceptional. Brandon Allen grew each week, until suffering his oblique injury in the second quarter against Ole Miss, but overall he’s no better than middle of the pack in terms of SEC quarterbacks.

Meanwhile, Texas had no choice early on, when David Ash had to give up football, but to turn to the sophomore Tyrone Swoopes. Swooeds passed for 2,352 yards (compared with Allen’s 2,125 yards passing). But he also threw 10 interceptions to Allen’s five, and he had five turnovers in the 48-10 blowout loss to TCU at home to close the regular season. His game is more geared than Allen’s to make something big happen, but that can also mean something disastrously large. Allen, meanwhile, has been coached into a conservative throwing passer, better now on the rollout and hitting the sideline routes where only his receiver can catch the football. He rarely fumbled, though Georgia’s speed from the outside gave him trouble at midseason. Arkansas, rather, needs its stellar running backs to stop putting it on the ground the way they did at Missouri.

It’s unlikely Texas’ defensive front, however good it might be, is as fast as anything Arkansas saw in the SEC, and surely not in the same league as Georgia, LSU, Alabama or Missouri in turns of speed at the ends, if not the entire front seven.

If Arkansas’s offensive line can live up to what we saw in the first half of the season — that is, handle the front and get to Texas’ decent second level of linebackers — then Williams and Collins should find ample running room. Not like they enjoyed against Texas Tech, but at least closer to 200 yards. Then, Allen can open things up with his rollouts, the passing play that became a prominent weapon against LSU and likely would have been a huge difference if not for Allen’s playing injured against Missouri.

And, while Strong has brought the Longhorns’ defense around most expected after his hiring, first-year Arkansas offensive coordinator Robb Smith has done amazing work rebuilding the Hogs’ now swarming and hard-hitting version of defense after nearly seven years of Razorback fans wondering where that ol’ Hog defense had gone.

It’s rare in the long series between Arkansas and Texas that the Razorbacks have been proclaimed the favorite in the matchup, but oddsmakers gave the Hogs a 4-point edge when the game was announced (last look, the line has jumped to 7, meaning most of the money has been placed on Arkansas to cover). This Arkansas team has one more challenge for 2014 to set the table for next season: If the game is truly that close, the fourth quarter will be one in which the Razorback faithful will again sit uneasy. Arkansas’ six wins each were by 17 or more points; four of the six losses were decided in the final 15 minutes. It’s time for Bielema’s program to take those games that are on the table in the fourth quarter.

If this goes anything like the only other bowl matchup between the programs, the 2000 Cotton Bowl win led by Clint Stoerner, Anthony Lucas, Cedric Cobbs and a rabid defense that wreaked havoc on the ’Horns passers, the Hogs will battle for three quarters and run away with it in the final period.

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