SAN ANTONIO (AP) — For all of its festive atmosphere, from San Antonio's River Walk to its New Year's Eve kickoff, the Alamo Bowl boils down to degrees of disappointment.
As in which team, No. 12 Utah or Texas, can better shake off its disappointment over not getting to play somewhere else.
The Utes (11-2, No. 11, CFP) had a shot at the College Football Playoff before they fired blanks in a crushing loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.
And Texas? The season after quarterback Sam Ehlinger declared “We're baaack!” following a rousing Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, the Longhorns (7-5) expected to contend for the Big 12 title. That disappeared by late October as they sunk to their 10th consecutive season of four losses or more.
For both programs, Tuesday night is a stark reminder of what could have been, and a chance to bounce into 2020 with renewed expectations of where they hope to be next season.
Beating a big-game program like Texas, even when the Longhorns weren't as good as expected, could be a big boost for Utah heading into next season.
“We have one more shot as a group of seniors here to leave the program better than we found it, and so we’re fired up and ready to go," said Utah's consensus All-America defensive end Bradlee Anae, who anchors the nation's No. 1 rush defense and has 29 1/2 career sacks.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is 11-2 in bowl games. He reminded his team that a win could mean the Utes end the season ranked in the top 10.
“It's something we've talked about,” Whittingham said. “That would mean a lot to our program.”
Texas coach Tom Herman certainly has his eyes on 2020. He already has reshuffled his staff by firing defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and demoting offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
New defensive coordinator Chris Ash and new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich won't join the team until after the bowl game.
Texas started the season ranked in the top 10. The Longhorns finished in a tangled four-way tie for third in the Big 12 and drew a trip to the Alamo Bowl, where the Alamodome will be packed with Longhorns fans making the 1-hour drive from Austin.
Close to home but far from where Texas wanted to be.
“This season maybe on some levels needed to happen for some of those guys to realize 10, 11, 12 wins and really cool bowl games don’t just happen. They are the product of really hard work," Herman said.
The Longhorns have struggled with injuries in key positions, most notably at wide receiver and in the secondary. But senior wide receiver Collin Johnson is expected to play after missing six games with a hamstring injury, which gives quarterback Ehlinger a 6-foot-5 target with sticky hands.
Utah junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson is skipping the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft, but key seniors for both teams are expected to play. That includes Anae and running back Zack Moss for Utah, and Johnson and slot receiver Devin Duvernay for Texas. Duvernay was probably the biggest question mark for Texas, but he committed early to playing. He has 103 catches for 1,294 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
Moss is the most prolific back the Texas defense will have faced since Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard back in late September. Moss has rushed for 1,359 yards this season and the Longhorns allowed a 100-yard rusher four times this season.
“I have a lot more things to do for this team and we can come out here and win," Moss said.
The Texas secondary has struggled with injuries all season but should be healthy for the bowl game, most notably safety Caden Sterns. It's just the opposite for Utah. The Utes already are missing Johnson and also will be without All-Pac-12 free safety Julian Blackmon and his primary backup, R.J. Hubert, who were both hurt in the Pac-12 championship game.
SCHEMING FOR TEXAS
The biggest challenge for Utah might have been developing a game plan for Texas and its interim coordinators on both sides of the ball. Whether that opens up more running opportunities for Ehlinger or a new defensive front lined up against Utah's Tyler Huntley creates an unpredictability factor Utah will have to overcome.