Arkansas and Kansas State aren’t playing in the BCS national championship game. In fact, they’re not even participating in a BCS bowl.
Their meeting in the Cotton Bowl, though, figures to be one of the more entertaining postseason games.
Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed Arkansas as a 7 1/2-point favorite, with the total set at 63.
The Razorbacks and Wildcats finished in the top eight in the final BCS standings, but losses to powerhouse programs – and other circumstances – have them playing at Cowboys Stadium on Friday night instead of higher-profile bowls.
Arkansas went 10-2 to finish sixth in the BCS and No. 7 in the AP rankings. The Razorbacks’ only losses were to SEC rivals Alabama and LSU, who will be meeting in the BCS title game three days after the Cotton Bowl.
Kansas State also went 10-2, good for eighth in the BCS and 11th in the AP poll, losing to Big 12 foes Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The Sooners were in the national title hunt until late November, while the Cowboys lost only once and finished third in the BCS to earn a spot in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Razorbacks were left out of a BCS bowl due to a rule that precludes three teams from a single conference from making a BCS game, and the Wildcats because the Sugar Bowl preferred Michigan and Virginia Tech.
“If we’re going to have other games that are defined as the best because they’re part of that system, then we probably ought to have a little bit better connect to what those rankings actually are,” Kansas State athletic director John Currie said. “So either have them and use them, or just don’t have them. I would be fine if we did away with the thing.”
That may happen one day, but for now, the Wildcats’ focus will be on finishing a resurgent season under coach Bill Snyder.
Kansas State went 7-6 in 2010 and lost 36-34 to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl, its first postseason appearance since falling 37-10 to Rutgers in the 2006 Texas Bowl.
The Wildcats were picked to finish eighth in the conference this season, but Snyder led them to their most wins since an 11-4 finish in 2003 and was the runaway pick for Big 12 coach of the year.
“We don’t have no five-star recruits, four-star recruits. We don’t have no big athletes like other teams have. We just stick together and do our role, and continue to work hard until there’s zeroes on the clock,” cornerback David Garrett said. “He makes sure he instills all that into us.”
The success of Snyder’s counterpart, Bobby Petrino, has led to other teams in the country hiring away his coaches.
Since falling 41-17 at No. 1 LSU on Nov. 25, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee (UAB) and special teams coordinator John L. Smith (Weber State) have taken head coaching positions, while defensive coordinator Willy Robinson resigned after four seasons with Petrino.
Former Ohio State assistant Paul Haynes was hired to run the defense, and Petrino said Haynes will be using Arkansas’ current defensive terminology through the Cotton Bowl.
The Razorbacks also brought back Paul Petrino, Bobby’s brother, as offensive coordinator, while assistant coach Steve Caldwell is taking over Smith’s duties on special teams.
“We’ve got a mature team, and that helps a lot,” Bobby Petrino said. “I put more on the players. I put more on the seniors that, ‘You’ve got to make sure we’re ready in the meetings, make sure we get to practice right.'”
Some of the upperclassmen Petrino will be relying on are quarterback Tyler Wilson, wide receiver Jarius Wright and safety Tramain Thomas.
Wilson led the SEC with 3,422 passing yards while completing 63.1 percent of his passes and throwing 22 touchdowns to six interceptions. His favorite target is Wright, who led the conference with 11 receiving TDs and was second with 63 catches and 1,029 yards.
Thomas tied for 10th in the FBS with five interceptions.
“I know (the Razorbacks) are a very talented football team,” Snyder said. “They probably have the same feelings we do and feel like they’ve accomplished a great deal this year. They throw the ball around extremely well. They have some extremely talented wide receivers.”
The Wildcats may not put up passing numbers like Arkansas, but Snyder has no complaints about his quarterback. Collin Klein only threw for 1,745 yards and 12 TDs, but he rushed for 1,099 yards – a Kansas State quarterback record – and a school-record 26 scores, which were second-most in the FBS behind the 32 by Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball of Wisconsin.
“He’s not underappreciated by me nor his teammates,” Snyder said. “… There just isn’t a category for him … he’s kind of that utility guy. He can do quite a few things. We have such a great appreciation for him here.”
The Razorbacks are well aware of what Klein means to Kansas State’s offense.
“He’s going to create for us a great challenge,” Petrino said. “He’s first very, very talented, a tremendous runner, has really shown that he can throw the football with anybody in the country. We’re going to have to be very disciplined on defense, do a great job with our eyes, be able to tackle well.
“I think that’s the one thing, not only in the quarterback runs that they call for him but also in his ability to scramble out on pass calls.”
Arkansas is 12-23-3 in its bowl appearances, losing 31-26 to Ohio State in last January’s Sugar Bowl. Kansas State has lost three straight bowl games and is 6-8 all-time.
The Razorbacks are 3-7-1 in the Cotton Bowl, while the Wildcats have split their two appearances.
“We’re really excited about the matchup between Arkansas and Kansas State, two top-10 teams,” Cotton Bowl chairman Tommy Bain said. “I might add there are only two other bowls that feature higher-ranked teams. We’re really proud of that.
“Kansas State and Arkansas are longtime friends of the Cotton Bowl, so we feel like we have family coming to the 2012 Cotton Bowl.”