'A tremendous challenge'
Arkansas looking forward to playing in Citrus Bowl
Posted: Friday December 18, 1998 10:37 PM
FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas (AP) -- Coach Houston Nutt was getting a little anxious as he watched the two teams who had beaten his Arkansas Razorbacks square off in the Southeastern Championship.
A loss by Tennessee to Mississippi State could have jeopardized the Razorbacks expected trip to the Citrus Bowl. But the Volunteers won -- and so, consequently, did the Razorbacks.
Arkansas will be playing in the Citrus against Michigan, last year's national champion, on New Year's Day.
"I was about ready to kick my TV in when Mississippi State returned the punt" for a touchdown and 14-10 lead over Tennessee, Nutt said. "I was very, very concerned about what could have happened."
But Tennessee rallied for a win Saturday. And Nutt was ecstatic on Sunday after learning the Razorbacks' bowl destination.
"To be where we are right now, to be picked last [in the SEC West] and to finish tied for first and going to a major bowl on January 1, it's special," he said.
For the No. 11 Razorbacks, it is their first New Year's Day game since the 1990 Cotton Bowl. Arkansas is the Southeastern Conference pick and No. 15 Michigan is the Big Ten representative for the game in Orlando, Florida.
Michigan is 84-23-2 during the decade, one of the most successful programs in the 1990s. Arkansas is 47-53-2 during the same period, struggling under three coaches before Nutt was hired last December.
Nutt's first team is 9-2. Michigan is 9-3.
Nutt said he hasn't had a chance to watch film of Michigan, but has caught glimpses of the Wolverines on television. He noted that Michigan has a rich football tradition and said Coach Lloyd Carr's staff has done a tremendous job.
"It's a tremendous challenge to us and we're looking forward to it," Nutt said.
Carr praised Nutt and his Razorbacks, describing Arkansas as "a tremendously aggressive defensive team" that plays hard. He also complimented Nutt: "I don't think anyone in this country has done a better job of coaching than Houston Nutt this year."
The Razorbacks opened the season with eight consecutive wins. They lost close games at Tennessee (28-24) and Mississippi State (22-21), then closed the season on a high note, beating LSU 41-14. That victory impressed Bowl scouts and so did the promise that Arkansas would bring lots of fans to Florida.
But if Mississippi State had beaten Tennessee on Saturday, it would have knocked the Volunteers out of the national title hunt and likely into the Citrus Bowl. That would have left Arkansas settling for something less.
Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles said Sunday the university already had sold some 12,000 bowl tickets, regardless of where the team was going.
"There's 28 in my family and I'm bringing all of them. I may have the largest family group there," he said.
Michigan lost its first two games this season, 36-20 to Notre Dame and 38-28 to Syracuse, then won eight of its last nine. The Wolverines' only defeat during that nine-game stretch was a 31-16 loss to Ohio State.
After the Razorbacks' fast start, Cotton Bowl officials were extremely interested. Earlier this year, the Cotton Bowl worked out an agreement to match an SEC team against a Big 12 representative. There was a great deal of speculation that the Razorbacks would play Texas in a renewal of an old Southwest Conference rivalry.
During the week prior to Arkansas' season finale against LSU, it became clear that Mississippi State had the inside track to the Cotton Bowl.
The Razorbacks and Bulldogs shared the Western Division title, but SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer said Mississippi State was the champion and that the Cotton Bowl's first option was to take the division winner.
Some people panicked, worried that the Razorbacks would do no better than the Independence Bowl.
Before and during the LSU game, Broyles and others convinced representatives from the Citrus and the Outback bowls that Arkansas would bring thousands of fans to Florida.
After beating LSU, the Razorbacks got help from Georgia Tech and Southern Cal. Tech beat Georgia 21-19 on a 35-yard field goal with two seconds to play. And USC defeated Notre Dame 10-0.
Georgia's loss meant Tennessee was the only SEC team with a better record than Arkansas, and Florida was the only league team with an equal record. Notre Dame's loss opened the door for the Orange Bowl to take Florida. That, in turn, left a spot in the Citrus Bowl.
After Kansas State lost to Texas A&M in the Big 12 Championship on Saturday, there was some thought that the Orange Bowl might take the higher-ranked Wildcats. But Orange Bowl officials stuck with Florida.
The Citrus will be Arkansas' first bowl game since the 1995 team lost to Florida in the SEC championship game and wound up in the CarQuest Bowl, losing to North Carolina 20-10.
The Razorbacks' last bowl victory was 18-17 over Arizona State in the 1985 Holiday Bowl. The Arizona State coach was John Cooper.
The 1986 Razorbacks went to the Orange Bowl and lost to Oklahoma. The next year, they lost to Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. Ken Hatfield's last two teams made trips to the Cotton Bowl but lost to UCLA 17-3 and Tennessee 31-27. The 1991 team dropped a 24-15 decision to Georgia in the Independence Bowl.
The Razorbacks are 1-0 against Big Ten competition -- they beat Northwestern 38-7 in 1981.
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