Texas improved enough this season to return to postseason play after having its 12-year streak of bowl appearances snapped in 2010.
The stumbling Longhorns, though, could badly use a win in their final game as they seek a positive ending to another disappointing season.
Texas takes on surging California in the Holiday Bowl at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium on Wednesday night in its first bowl action since losing in the BCS title game two seasons ago.
Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed Texas as a three-point favorite, with the total set at 47 1/2.
The Longhorns (7-5) climbed as high as 11th in the Top 25 after a 4-0 start, but their season unraveled from there. Texas dropped three of its last four – its only win in that stretch coming in the last second against archrival Texas A&M – and was victimized by Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III in its regular-season finale, a 48-24 loss to then-No. 19 Baylor on Dec. 3.
The poor finish has coach Mack Brown eager to try and close the season on a high note.
“The kids have been resilient,” Brown said. “They’ve done a good job. We just need to finish with our eighth win.”
Texas’ unsettled quarterback situation has played a big part in the team’s troubles. Garrett Gilbert – who nearly led the Longhorns past Alabama in the 2009 BCS championship game following Colt McCoy’s injury – began the season as the starter but decided to transfer after struggling in two games.
David Ash and Case McCoy have shared time under center since, with often disappointing results. Given a shot to start, Ash struggled to a 2-3 mark and McCoy took over and started the last two games. He passed for 356 yards and three scores against Baylor, though he also threw four interceptions – the first picks of his 13-game career – and totaled five turnovers, which could open the door for Ash to start the bowl game.
Texas has gotten a stronger effort out of its defense, which ranks 14th in the nation and first in the Big 12 at 315.3 yards allowed per game. The Longhorns are 11th in the country against the run, giving up 103.7 yards per contest.
They had little success against Baylor, however, as Griffin passed for 320 yards and two touchdowns while running for two more scores, and teammate Terrance Ganaway rushed for 152 yards and two TDs. The Longhorns gave up 191 yards on the ground and 511 overall.
That may not bode well in the Holiday Bowl, where Texas will be charged with slowing down Cal quarterback Zach Maynard and running back Isi Sofele, who have powered the Golden Bears during their strong finish.
Cal (7-5) split its first eight games, leaving its bowl status in doubt, but wins in three of its final four contests – the only loss coming by a 31-28 score at then-No. 8 Stanford on Nov. 19 – earned it a Holiday Bowl berth. This is the Bears’ third appearance in the game.
“I’m really proud of the strong finish of our team,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “It shows a lot of character to fight through some adversity earlier in the year to play well down the stretch. That’s the mark of a quality football team, one that continues to improve and get better.
” … I know we’ll be excited to play. We’ll prepare well and go out and give it our best effort.”
Maynard went 20 of 29 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the defeat to the Cardinal, and he was 20 of 27 for 241 yards with one passing TD and another on the ground in a 47-38 victory over Arizona State the next week.
Sofele has run for 1,266 yards and nine TDs this season and was at his best in the final four games, averaging 141.3 yards.
“Coach Tedford is obviously known as one of the top offensive coaches in college football,” Longhorns defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “You know when you go against one of his teams, it is going to be a challenge for you defensively. We will get back to trying to do what we do well defensively. They will provide a test for us in all three phases.”
Texas has won all four matchups with Cal, the last coming in 1970.
“We look forward to playing a university with a great tradition such as Texas,” Tedford said.
The Longhorns have won seven of their last nine postseason games and are appearing in the Holiday Bowl for the fifth time – the last coming in 2007 – with a 2-2 mark in the game.
Cal defeated Texas A&M 45-10 in the 2006 Holiday Bowl after falling 45-31 to Texas Tech in the ’04 game. The Bears are 5-2 in bowl games under Tedford.