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Liberty Bowl Preview and Prediction: Kansas State vs. Arkansas

Bret Bielema

Bret Bielema

The 2015 college football season may have not ended the way fan bases for both Kansas State and Arkansas had hoped, but both squads gutted out a tough conference schedule to become bowl eligible, landing an invitation to the 59th Liberty Bowl in Memphis on Saturday. Kansas State is making its sixth consecutive bowl appearance while Arkansas is making its second in a row.

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The Wildcats jumped out of the gate hot winning their first three games but then went on a six-game slide against tough Big 12 competition, losing key games to Oklahoma State, TCU, Oklahoma and Baylor. Seemingly playing right at the level of its competition, other than a blowout loss to Oklahoma, Kansas State found a way to stay in most games despite struggling at times on offense and on defense. The Wildcats rallied over their final three games completing a 21-point comeback against Iowa State, topped in-state rival Kansas, and got a fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victory, fueled by backup quarterback/wide receiver Kody Cook, over West Virginia to become bowl eligible in the final game of the regular season.

The Razorbacks, much like Kansas State, struggled through part of their schedule tinkering with pieces on offense and defense through a 2-4 start. Arkansas had some embarrassing losses along the way, dropping home games to Toledo and Texas Tech before putting together a four-game winning streak that included back-to-back road wins over then-No. 18 Ole Miss and No. 9 LSU.

The Liberty Bowl offers a unique matchup at the head coaching level, pitting mentor against student. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder helped Bret Bielema while Bielema was a defensive lineman for the Iowa Hawkeyes and Snyder was the team’s offensive coordinator. After Snyder went to Kansas State, he reunited with Bielema in 2002, hiring his former player as the Wildcats’ co-defensive coordinator. It was Bielema’s last stop before going to Wisconsin in 2004 as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Kansas State vs. Arkansas (Memphis, Tenn.)

Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: ESPN

Spread: Arkansas -12.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Kansas State’s Passing Offense vs. Arkansas’ Pass Defense

Kansas State is not much of a passing team, averaging 177 yards per game, but may need to step up the effort if a win in Memphis is desired. The Hogs’ pass defense tightened up down the backstretch some but was still dinged for 285 yards per game on average.

Wildcats’ starting quarterback Joe Hubener left the West Virginia game in the fourth quarter with an injury, turning the offense over to Kody Cook. Cook looked good leaving Snyder with options and a dilemma heading into the bowl game. Hubener is expected to play allowing Cook, the Wildcats’ second-leading receiver with 27 receptions for 412 yards and three scores, the opportunity to go back on the outside to test the Hogs’ pass defense.

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2. Alex Collins vs. Kansas State Rush Defense

Collins was the third-leading rusher in the SEC with 1,392 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Hogs have a big and talented offensive line, which is the straw that stirs the Razorback offense.

The Wildcats have allowed 159 yards per game on the ground, Arkansas routinely nets 194 yards. Stopping Collins, forcing quarterback Brandon Allen to beat them through the air, will be the game plan. If it works or not has yet to be determined.

3. X-factors
One player to watch on each team in this game is Kansas State RB Charles Jones and the aforementioned Allen for Arkansas. The Razorbacks have been stingy against the run, limiting teams to 120 yards rushing per game, and that includes contests against Heisman Trophy Award winner Derrick Henry and LSU running back Leonard Fournette.  Jones led Kansas State with 652 yards on the ground and five touchdowns, while adding 12 receptions for another 139 yards.

Allen threw for 3,125 yards and 27 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. His top target is tight end Hunter Henry, a consensus All-American and this season’s John Mackey Award recipient. Junior wide receivers Drew Morgan (55 rec., 751 yds., 10 TDs) and Dominique Reed (27-520-6) are the primary outside threats.

If Jones or Allen breaks out early, that will open up opportunities for Hubener or Collins or other playmakers on their respective teams.

Final Analysis

Joe Hubener has what is being described as a lower leg injury but is expected to settle in under center for the Wildcats. If Hubener is slowed at all running Kansas State’s option attack, how long before Bill Snyder calls Kody Cook out of the bullpen for a change of pace in the offense?

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Arkansas has had troubles stopping dual-threat or mobile quarterbacks, dropping games to Texas Tech (Patrick Mahomes), Texas A&M (Kyle Allen), and Mississippi State (Dak Prescott). If Kansas State spreads the Hogs out and allows Hubener or Cook to run, this could be a long game for Arkansas.

Kansas State is 7-11 in bowl games while Arkansas is 14-23-3. The only other time the two teams met in a bowl game was in the 2012 Cotton Bowl with the Hogs winning 29-16.

Arkansas’ strength of schedule was considered the eighth toughest in the nation while Kansas State’s slate was ranked considerably lower (No. 50).

The Razorbacks seem too balanced on offense while their one true weakness, pass defense, is not an area the Wildcats excel in. Advantage Arkansas.

Prediction: Arkansas 38, Kansas State 17

— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.