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Outback Bowl pits No. 21 Arkansas vs. reeling Penn State

Georgia inside linebacker Nakobe Dean (17) sacks Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) on Oct. 2.News Joshua L Jones
Georgia inside linebacker Nakobe Dean (17) sacks Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) on Oct. 2.News Joshua L Jones

No. 21 Arkansas and Penn State took very different paths to the Outback Bowl.

When the teams square off in Tampa on Saturday, the Razorbacks will be looking to conclude a positive second-half surge to their season, while the Nittany Lions will be seeking to salvage a once-promising campaign.

Arkansas (8-4) closed out the regular season by winning four of its final five games, losing only by a touchdown to then-No. 2 Alabama during that stretch. The Razorbacks are looking to garner some attention after a season in which they defeated Texas, Texas A&M and Mississippi State — all Top 25 foes at the time.

“Some teams take (bowl games) lightly,” Razorbacks wide receiver De’Vion Warren said. “We don’t take any game lightly, so for us it’s another game that we have to go out there and earn respect. In college football, people do not respect Arkansas.”

The opposite may be true of the Nittany Lions. Penn State (7-5) received plenty of early-season plaudits, earning a top-five ranking after a 5-0 start, but the team dropped five of its final seven outings to tumble out of the rankings.

That has left the Nittany Lions hoping to squeeze one final win out of their 2021 season, although the team also would like to begin some momentum for its 2022 campaign.

“Guys are hungry and going about it the right way,” Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown said. “We want to go into this bowl game and provide an example of what next season is gonna be like.”

Several players on the teams are looking to next season in a different sense, as both squads have a key player skipping the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft.

Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks and Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker and receiver Jahan Dotson, all of whom are possible first-round picks in next year’s draft, decided to focus on their NFL futures.

As for the players who will be suiting up on New Year’s Day, Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson is one of the headliners. He has 2,578 passing yards and 21 touchdowns against only three interceptions, and he also has contributed 554 rushing yards and five scores.

Without Burks (66 catches, 1,104 yards, 11 TDs), the Razorbacks likely will rely on a rushing attack that ranked second in the SEC with an average of 217.3 yards per game.

The Nittany Lions will be without Dotson’s 91 receptions, 1,182 yards and 12 TDs, putting pressure on quarterback Sean Clifford (2,912 yards, 20 TDs, six INTs) to find other targets.

This is the Nittany Lions’ fifth trip to the Outback Bowl — against five different SEC programs — with their most recent appearance being a 37-24 loss to Florida on Jan. 1, 2011.

Arkansas is playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game for the first time since 2008. The team has not played in a bowl of any kind since the 2016 Belk Bowl, as the Razorbacks’ scheduled appearance in the 2020 Texas Bowl was canceled due to COVID-19.

This is the first meeting ever between the schools.

–Field Level Media