by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)
Kansas State vs. Arkansas
Date: Jan. 6, 8:00 PM ET
Location: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
This game looks to be the most anticipated non-BCS contest of the postseason, and it quickly sold out Cowboys Stadium after the pairing of Top 10 teams was announced. Arkansas and Kansas State both went 10-2 this season, with the Razorbacks relying on a high-octane passing attack and the Wildcats riding a solid ground game and excellent turnover margin to double-digit wins. Arkansas plays in the brutal SEC West, and the two best teams in the country — Alabama and LSU — gave the Hogs their only two losses. Both of Kansas State’s defeats were also to quality teams — Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — in a rugged Big 12 schedule.
Arkansas missed the postseason in 2008, coach Bobby Petrino’s first season in Fayetteville. However the Razorbacks have rebounded with three straight January bowls, including last year’s BCS appearance in the Sugar Bowl. The former Southwest Conference member will be making its 12th Cotton Bowl appearance. K-State did not get to a bowl from 2007-09, but the Wildcats returned to the postseason last year in the Pinstripe Bowl. Bill Snyder has the rescued the program for a second time, and he will receive many Coach of the Year honors for this season’s performance. This will be the 14th bowl in KSU history, and Snyder has been the coach for 13 of those postseason games.
WHEN KANSAS STATE HAS THE BALL:
Junior quarterback Collin Klein had a breakout season in Manhattan, running for over 1,000 yards and scoring an amazing 26 touchdowns on the ground.He played wide receiver as a freshman and received some backup duty at quarterback as a sophomore. Klein became the starter this season and threw for 1,745 and 12 touchdowns along with his rushing accomplishments. Running back John Hubert added 933 yards and three scores on the ground this season. The Wildcats rushing duo accounted for 481 of the team’s 566 carries in 2011.
K-State’s leading receiver is Chris Harper, who finished with 39 catches for 536 yards and five touchdowns this season. Sophomore Tramaine Thompson was second on the team with 281 receiving yards and will serve as Wildcats’ return man. Unfortunately, productive freshman Tyler Lockett (nephew of K-State great, Aaron) was lost for the season with a lacerated kidney in the Oklahoma State game.
Arkansas struggled in rushing defense, ranking 80th in the country. Senior linebacker Jerry Franklin led the Hogs in tackles for a fourth-straight season. He totaled 93 stops this year along with 10 tackles for loss. Safety Tramain Thomas was second on the team with 87 tackles and also added five interceptions. The Arkansas defensive line must play well in this game to give Franklin and Thomas a chance to get stops against a solid K-State running game.
WHEN ARKANSAS HAS THE BALL:
Arkansas gunslinger Tyler Wilson does his damage through the air, throwing for over 3,400 yards and 22 scores this season. The junior signal caller did a solid job in his first year as a starter, and he did not have the benefit of star tailback Knile Davis running the ball. Davis had over 1,300 yards in 2010 but missed this season with a severe ankle injury. There have been rumors that he could return for the Cotton Bowl, but Davis would lose a year of eligibility in that case.
The Hogs have a highly productive receiving group, and the leader in 2011 was Jarius Wright. The senior wideout had 63 catches for 1,029 yards and 11 scores. Senior Joe Adams (630 yards) and junior Cobi Hamilton (516 yards) are also solid targets, while tight end Chris Gragg had a productive season with 40 catches for 492 yards and two scores. Arkansas used a committee approach to the running the ball with Davis out. Dennis Johnson led the way with 637 yards and three touchdowns, but Ronnie Wingo Jr. and short-yardage back Broderick Green will also get carries.
The Kansas State gave up plenty of yards this season in the high-scoring Big 12. The Wildcats did not get much pressure opposing quarterbacks, which contributed to allowing over 267 passing yards per game. Linebacker Arthur Brown blossomed after transferring (Miami) back to his home state, leading the team with 95 stops this year. Cornerback Nigel Malone also had an excellent season with 57 tackles and a Big 12-leading seven interceptions. K-State will need to cause some turnovers to slow down the Razorbacks’ attack.
Both teams are fairly solid in this critical area. Arkansas arguably has the best punt returner in the nation in Adams, who averaged a nation-leading 16.2 yards on 16 returns and took three to the end zone. The Hogs will split kick returns between Johnson and Marquel Wade, both of whom averaged over 25 yards per kick return and scored once this season. Punter Dylan Breeding averaged a stellar 45.2 yards on 49 punts, including putting 14 of them inside the 20-yard line. Sophomore kicker Zach Hocker was 18-for-24 on field goals with a long of 50 yards.
Kansas State had a top returner in the aforementioned Lockett, who averaged a whopping 35.2 yards on 16 kick returns with two touchdowns before his injury. Thompson should handle both sets of returns in this game, and he had a solid average of 13.2 yards on just nine punt returns. Junior kicker Anthony Cantele had a quality season, going 17-for-22 on field goals with a long of 54 yards. Junior Ryan Doerr averaged 40.5 yards on 59 punts, with 13 placed inside the 20-yard line.
It will be fun to watch the Arkansas aerial wizardry against Mr. Klein and K-State’s efficient rushing attack. There will be plenty of points scored as Jerry Jones watches his alma mater at Cowboys Stadium. The key to this game will be turnovers, a factor that the Wildcats have relied on heavily this year.
Wilson threw the ball over 400 times this year, but he had only six interceptions. Kansas State will challenge the Arkansas defense with Klein starring in the game, but I’ll take Wilson to lead the Razorbacks to an exciting Cotton Bowl victory.
Arkansas 37, Kansas State 31