Premium offensive line play key in AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Bill Snyder takes his Kansas State Wildcats (6-6) into Memphis, TN in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on January 2nd against QB Brandon Allen and the Arkansas Razorbacks (7-5). Snyder has put forth one of his better coaching jobs as the Wildcats lost a tremendous amount of talent in the offseason and played one of the toughest schedules in the nation.
While the Wildcats lost six straight games, it started with a nail-biting last minute loss at Oklahoma State in which they lost their quarterback Joe Hubener and replaced him with WR Kody Cook. Of their next five losses, three came against top 10 (when healthy) teams in TCU, Oklahoma and Baylor. A last miracle win against Iowa State saved their season and Snyder’s bunch hasn’t lost since.
Arkansas had a rough start to the year after losing in their conference opener to Texas A&M, sitting at 1-3. The Razonbacks went on to win six of their next eight games, including an OT thriller against Ole Miss, which allowed Alabama to win the SEC West.
Previewing the matchup
The Liberty Bowl will match Kansas State and Arkansas for the sixth time in the program’s history with the Wildcats holding a 3-2 lead but with the Razorbacks taking the last two. In fact, KSU’s last win against Arkansas came in 1926–the only time they have faced in a bowl was 2012’s Cotton Bowl.
A look into the trenches usually provides a glaring sign as to which team will have an upper hand and on both sides of the ball it will play a big part in this game. Both offensive lines are strong, particularly KSU’s OL as they have one of the best in the nation, led by LT Cody Whitehair (+35.5). On the defensive side, KSU’s starters are better but Arkansas has better depth with six of their top eight defensive lineman grading above +6.0.
Players to watch
KSU’s Kody Cook
Cook does it all for the Wildcats stepping in at QB and almost beating Oklahoma State and leading a comeback victory against West Virginia in the season finale. While I expect Hubener to start at QB and Cook at WR, don’t be surprised if Hubener struggles and Cook gets more looks at QB.
KSU’s offensive line
With a combined overall grade of +94.2 with a +76.0 run blocking grade, the Wildcats OL is the engine that makes the Wildcats go. Lead by LT Cody Whitehair and LG Boston Stiverson +25.8, KSU’s OL is also protected by depth in guard Terrale Johnson +10.9. In two seasons together, Whitehair and Stiverson have allowed 4 sacks (all Whitehair) and 5 hits.
Arkansas’ Brandon Allen
Allen grades as the SEC’s best passer (+26.0) and second overall (+25.7) swapping with Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly. All greatly improved his game from a year ago (+1.3). His two best games of the year came in two of the most thrilling of the entire college landscape. Week 10 against Ole Miss in which he was 33-45, 428 yards, 6 TDs, and a monstrous +9.1 grade. Week 12 against Mississippi State he took it even further on 30-43, 406 yards, 7 TDs, and +9.4.
Arkansas’ Deatrich Wise Jr.
A rotational DE and pass rushing specialist, Wise ranks 10th in the nation in pass rushing productivity at 13.7. His 10 sacks and 13 hits are team highs and show he can finish at the QB. Wise will split time equally from left to right so expect him to match up against Whitehair a handful of times in what should be an exciting battle.
Brandon Allen and the Razorback offense will be tough to contain for Bill Snyder’s squad. Kansas State’s defense is strong upfront but have suffered some key injuries in the defensive backfield. On the other hand, Arkansas’ defense has been torched a few times this season, and the Wildcats can lean on their OL to grind out a win. I expect to see a high scoring affair and predict an upset as it is difficult to bet against Bill Snyder and a month of preparation.
KSU 40, Arkansas 37