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Hogs battle ghosts in Cotton Bowl 

click to enlarge Tyler Wilson image

The Arkansas Razorbacks' uniquely miserable bowl history — 12 wins in 38 games — is perfectly encapsulated by a 3-7-1 showing in the Cotton Bowl.

After smashing Georgia by 21 points in the 1976 game, little more than a decade after winning its only national championship in the House That Doak Built, Arkansas has returned to Dallas five times and lost on four occasions, with the single victory being s rout of a worse-than-usual Texas team in 2000. My contemporaries will have no difficulty recalling some hideous showings there, specifically a 17-3 loss to UCLA in 1989 that represented the single-worst offensive output of any Arkansas team ever (four first downs, 42 total yards) and a 10-3 defeat at the hands of Oklahoma in 2002 that somehow appeared worse than that debacle against the Bruins.

For these reasons, Bobby Petrino again finds himself grappling not only with the challenge of the opponent on Jan. 6 but also the tormented ghosts of the program. Fortunately, having bested Texas A&M three straight years at Cowboys Stadium, the Hogs have become accustomed to and comfortable with these confines. The offense has churned out an average of 38 points in the three victories there, so it seems likely that the Petrino machine will not be slowed much by a Kansas State defense that yielded just shy of 28 points and 400 yards per game in 2011. 

It's the staff upheaval since the loss at LSU that probably presents the biggest risk of an upset, with the Hogs being favored by a healthy eight points. John L. Smith, Willy Robinson and Garrick McGee are all gone, and Steve Caldwell shifted from defensive line coach to assume Smith's role while Paul Haynes and Paul Petrino assume the defensive and offensive coordinator roles, respectively. Hazarding a guess as to how well each will adapt to his new station is difficult: Haynes will continue to operate the Robinson defense, at least in terms of terminology and scheme, but it stands to reason that he will take a few more risks and be a little more audacious, as this is essentially a floor show for what's to come. 

Kansas State's strengths, as is custom for a Bill Snyder team, lie in a more conservative, staid approach to the game. The Wildcats managed a 10-2 record because they did two things remarkably well: they controlled the clock, averaging almost an eight-minute time of possession advantage over the opponent, and they protected the ball to the tune of a plus-13 turnover margin that ranked sixth in the nation. These two areas were among the Hogs' biggest deficiencies (a net-zero turnover margin and a TOP ranking of 101st nationally), so this would seem to play into Kansas State's favor. The problem for the Wildcats is that these virtues masked defensive problems that were, by and large, even more significant than those which plagued the Razorbacks. Kansas State gave up 24 touchdown passes and only generated scant pressure on the quarterback (19 team sacks), and this led to a team pass defense ranking of 104th in the country, behind the likes of New Mexico and Troy, two secondaries that Arkansas torched early in the season. Kansas State's sustained drives of six or seven minutes will be rendered mostly meaningless if Jarius Wright, Joe Adams or Cobi Hamilton gets behind the defense routinely.

The kicking game looks like a wash at first blush with Zach Hocker owning only one more field goal and a few more PATs than the Wildcats' very capable junior Anthony Cantele, and Ryan Doerr is probably just a shade below Dylan Breeding as a punter (although Breeding's coverage unit failed him memorably this year on two occasions at Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge). Kansas State has an electric freshman return man, Tyler Lockett, whose father Kevin became K-State's all-time leading receiver while playing for Snyder in the early 1990s. What the Wildcats do not have is any peer at punt returner, and if Joe Adams gets an open lane at all next Friday, it will be an opportunity for him to cement his legacy with a decisive play in a postseason game.

The consensus among national pundits is that the Hogs' defense will have its hands full with Wildcat quarterback Collin Klein, who's been essentially miscast as a poor man's Tim Tebow. Klein is taller at 6' 5", has prettier throwing mechanics now as a junior than Tebow does as a second-year pro, and is more dynamic as a runner. His long strides are more evocative of Matt Jones than Tebow, and Klein has demonstrated a Jones-like ability to wiggle out of trouble and chuck it on the run. He's going to be a handful, no question.

But this game ultimately will be a showcase for Haynes, who with six weeks of prep milks everything he can out of a beleaguered defense. Tyler Wilson outplays his counterpart, and Arkansas sets off into recruiting season on its highest note in decades. Arkansas 40, Kansas State 27.

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