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.