TV: ESPN Radio: Longhorn Sports Network Radio (affiliates)
Vegas Line: Texas -3
5: This will be the fifth meeting between the two teams and the Horns' fifth appearance in the Holiday Bowl (2-2 record).
19: Going back to his time at North Carolina, Mack Brown has led his team to bowl games in 19 of the last 20 seasons.
26: A group of 26 seniors will be playing their final game as Longhorns.
As a class, they have helped UT to a 37-14
record (.725), including a Big 12 title, a Fiesta Bowl Championship and an appearance in the BCS National Championship
"I think the injuries to our running backs the last four games really hurt, because it's who we became. … You can see what the Boise State, Bryan Harsin, offense is going to be like if you combine the passing (against Baylor), take away the turnovers and run like we did at midseason. We'll have a chance to be really good, and that's what we've got to do."
In 2010, Texas finished with a losing record and was home for the holidays. In 2011 … it's going to the Holiday. The Holiday Bowl, that is.
The 7-5 Longhorns will travel to San Diego to play the Pac-10's California on Dec. 28. It'll be a big game for the Golden Bear fans with long memories, since many still hold a grudge for what they perceive as the Longhorns'lobbyist-aided berth in the Rose Bowl at their own expense in 2004.
California should be an interesting test for Texas. The Golden Bears have one of the best running backs in the country in Isi Sofele, but the Longhorns have an excellent run defense. Cal defends the run slightly better than the pass, and Texas runs the ball much better than it looks when it has to throw.
Neither team has been great when it's stepped up in class. The Longhorns struggled against the top half of the Big 12, while Cal got beat by most of the teams in the Pac 10 that are going bowling. Among the teams that knocked off the Golden Bears was UCLA, which Texas blasted 49-20 in September.
Still, the Texas team that romped past the Bruins won't be the one that takes the field in San Diego. Tailback Fozzy Whittaker is out for the year, while Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron will be recovering from injuries. The Longhorns, which spent most of the season running over teams, were down to the fourth and fifth options on their original depth chart by November.
The passing game is even less consistent, and both David Ash and Case McCoy will be battling for the starting job and playing time likely until just before kickoff. The defense is banged up and struggles with giving up the big play, something the offensive-minded Jeff Tedford will be looking to exploit on the Cal sideline.
On the other hand, Texas proved this season that when it's playing at its peak, it can beat anyone except the elite teams. California is certainly not that, so Mack Brown's squad will have every chance to end its season with a win, and get its young core of players some momentum to take into 2012.
Bowl History: Texas is 25-22-2 in bowls, though it was home last year with a 5-7 record. Its last postseason appearance had a bit higher stakes than this one … it lost the 2009 BCS title game to Alabama 37-21. Colt McCoy was the starting quarterback in that game, while his younger brother Case may start for the Longhorns in this one.
BEARS TO WATCH
• QB Zach Maynard will be the difference in whether Cal wins or loses its bowl game. Quarterback play is key or every team, but the up-and-down season of Maynard makes him particularly important. He will need to be at his best against Texas' strong pass defense. Maynard can't afford to make mistakes. Through the first eight games, he played poorly, and coach Jeff Tedford considered benching him after he threw four interceptions in the loss to UCLA. But partly because Tedford had no better alternative, he stuck with Maynard, who has played well ever since. More important, he has played better in each succeeding game. His best game of the season was the three-point loss to Stanford in Game 11, when his numbers were better than those of Andrew Luck. But he played even better in the Bears' final game against Arizona State. He also provides a running threat Cal has not had in a quarterback under Tedford. Whether the layoff will stall Maynard's momentum will be key.
• TB Isi Sofele has become a bigger part of the Cal offense over the second half of the season, and he averaged 142 yards per game over the final four contests. He is running with more authority than he did earlier in the season and has had a number of long runs. He will have trouble against Texas' defense, however, because the Longhorns rank 11th nationally against the run. He needs to be a threat to prevent Maynard from being pressured every time he tries to pass.
• ILB Mychal Kendricks is the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and is the team's big-play defender. He has 13 tackles for losses and two interceptions, plus he had two fumble recoveries. He played half the season with a cast on his hand after having thumb surgery midway through the year. He needs to apply some pressure on Texas quarterbacks.
• WR Keenan Allen was a first-team all-conference pick who ranked 12th nationally in receiving yardage at 105.1 per game. His numbers declined toward the end of the season as the Bears focused more on their running game. He did not have more than 100 yards in any of Cal's last six games after surpassing 100 yards in five of the first six games. He can also run or pass, and don't be surprised to see him used on end-arounds, possibly even to throw the ball. He needs to have a big game against Texas.
• WR Marvin Jones was overshadowed a bit by Keenan Allen, but no one has made more spectacular catches along the sidelines than Jones, who has caught at least one pass in 37 straight games. In the bowl game, his chief contribution may be as a punt returner. If he can break off one or two big ones to give Cal good field position against Texas, it may make the difference.
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Ride the horses - Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron may not be 100 percent, but if they're anywhere close they're still UT's best offensive weapons. If the two freshmen can handle the workload, they need to combine for 40 rushes in an attempt to wear down the Cal defense.
2. Flip field position - On paper, this game is expected to play close. Texas needs to do a better job in special teams in winning the field position battle. The Longhorns have the clear edge in the return game, but Texas may need a big game in the punting department from Justin Tucker if this contest is dominated by the defenses.
3. Eliminate the turnovers - It seems like forever ago, but it's hard to forget the way Texas coughed up the football against a bad Baylor defense in the Horns' last game (six total turnovers). Cal isn't exactly world-beaters on defense, but UT has made some pretty average defenses look good. The Longhorns can't afford to give Cal easy points.
CAL VS. TEXAS MATCHUP BREAKDOWN
CAL PASS OFFENSE VS. TEXAS PASS DEFENSE
Statistically, Cal QB Zach Maynard is a little above average, ranking 37th nationally in passing yards per game and throwing 17 TDs against 11 INTs. He's really improved of late. In Cal's final four games of the regular season (3 wins and a narrow loss to Stanford), he hit on 68 percent of his passes with 5 TDs and just 1 INT. His top target is all-conference receiver Keenan Allen, who will provide yet another tough test for the Texas secondary. Don't sleep on WR Marvin Jones who can also be effective.
The Texas secondary has been terrific this year, although it had a hard time keeping up with Baylor's speed (who doesn't?). Texas needs a big game from its corners, particularly Carrington Byndom, who is expected to match up with Allen most of the game. With Blake Gideon banged up and Christian Scott out of the game with an injury, Texas will lean heavily on Adrian Phillips and a young DB or two for depth.
CAL RUN OFFENSE VS. TEXAS RUN DEFENSE
Cal running back Isi Sofele put up some very impressive numbers this year, rushing for 106 yards per game (20th nationally). People try to knock those numbers because he didn't play a lot of great defenses, but he's a very good player. At 5-8 and 190 pounds, he'll look nothing like UT's starting RBs but Sofele runs hard and can make big plays. Back-up C.J. Anderson has averaged 5 ypc and scored 8 TDs.
The Texas run defense has been terrific and ranks 11th nationally. Baylor was able to go for nearly 200 yards in the Horns' last outing, but this is one of the country's best defenses in stifling opponents' ground attacks. DT Kheeston Randall played his best ball down the stretch and Texas has picked up production from a rotation of DTs, which has helped. LBs Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson have been terrific.
CAL OFFENSIVE LINE VS. TEXAS DEFENSIVE LINE
Cal features a lot of experience up front, with two senior starters and three juniors. The Bears average right at 300 pounds for their starting five and this unit has done a solid job as both run blockers and pass protectors. Cal has rushed for at least 100 yards in all but two games and is giving up less than two sacks per game. The star of this group is left tackle Mitchell Schwartz.
The Texas defensive line seems to get better each week and the players up front have had terrific bowl practices from all accounts. The defensive end combination of Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor should give Cal fits. If Texas gets the type of production from its DTs that it has been getting in the last month of the regular season, Texas wins this particular match-up.
CAL RUN DEFENSE VS. TEXAS RUN OFFENSE
This one's tough to predict without knowing which version of the UT ground game will be available. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are a near lock to play, but neither may be at full strength. Fans have the impression that Cal is soft against the run, but this is a Bears defense that has held up pretty well and ranks 36th nationally, giving up 130 yards per game on the ground. That being said, good teams have been able to put up big rushing yardage totals, including Oregon (365) and UCLA (294).
If Brown and Bergeron are able to go, as expected, Texas should have success in running between the tackles. The Longhorns need both backs to be able to carry the ball quite a bit to wear Cal's three-man defensive line down late in the game. Cal middle linebacker Mychal Kendricks is one of the nation's best, so he'll to be accounted for on every play.
CAL PASS DEFENSE VS. TEXAS PASS OFFENSE
The Golden Bears' pass defense was solid in 2011, ranking 38th nationally in pass efficiency defense and 41st nationally in passing yards allowed per game (209). Cornerbacks Steve Williams and Marc Anthony are decent but can be taken advantage of by good receivers. Safeties D.J. Campbell and Sean Cattouse have good size (Cattouse is 6-3) and play physical.
But let's be honest, this one isn't about who Texas is playing, it's about the Longhorns' ability to do anything through the air. The coaches still haven't announced a starter (although word behind the scenes is that a few people on the team know) and neither David Ash nor Colt McCoy has done a whole lot. Jaxon Shipley's return to health will help, as will a focused Mike Davis.
CAL DEFENSIVE LINE VS. TEXAS OFFENSIVE LINE
Cal runs a 3-4 so the defensive line isn't responsible for making a ton of big plays. Defensive ends Trevor Guyton and Ernest Owusu go 280 and 270 pounds, respectively, and have combined for 9 sacks on the year. Guyton is a second-team all-Pac-12 performer while Owusu was inserted into the starting line-up late in the season.
The Texas offensive line play has improved this year, but it's still been a bit inconsistent. Stacy Searels' group will look to end the season on a high note on Wednesday night. True freshman left tackle Josh Cochran has been a pleasant surprise and left guard David Snow has quietly turned in a very solid year.
CAL SPECIAL TEAMS VS. TEXAS SPECIAL TEAMS
Cal gets the overwhelming edge in the punting game. The Bears rank 7th nationally in net punting (40.24 yards) while Texas checks in at No. 95 (34.8 yards). Texas does get the edge in both areas of punt return and kick return.
Cal kicker Giorgia Tavecchio is very good, connecting on 19-22 field goals with a long of 54 yards. There aren't many kickers who can compare with UT's Justin Tucker, but Tavecchio measures up.
Throw in UT's ability to block punts, and Texas gets the slightest of edges in this one.