FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Tyler Wilson has tried to reflect on his first season as Arkansas' starting quarterback, one that saw him go from unknown to first-team All-Southeastern Conference.
No matter how hard he tries to enjoy and soak in his own accomplishments, Wilson keeps coming back to the Razorbacks' two losses this season — at No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama.
The junior will have one last chance to put those setbacks behind him when No. 7 Arkansas faces No. 11 Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl on Friday night. The game will be played in Cowboys Stadium, which was the site of what turned out to be a coming-out party of sorts for Wilson earlier this season — a 42-38 comeback win over Texas A&M on Oct. 1.
Wilson threw for a school-record 510 yards in that victory, helping Arkansas (10-2) rally from a 35-17 halftime deficit. Wilson was replacing Ryan Mallett as the starter and it was the first time this season that he made it a point to throw the football downfield rather than attempting shorter, safer passes.
The performance also came a week after the Razorbacks' first loss of the season, a 38-14 defeat at the hands of the Crimson Tide after three easy nonconference wins to open the season. That loss led to questions from Arkansas' coaches about the team's competitiveness, and it prompted Wilson to call the game a "must win."
Behind Wilson, the Razorbacks did just that against the Aggies — beginning a seven-game winning streak that was only snapped when Arkansas ended its regular season with a 41-17 loss against the Tigers in Baton Rouge, La.
It was a win that, by Wilson's account, saved Arkansas' season.
"We had been built up to the Alabama game all year, all summer," Wilson said. "And we go down there and get beat pretty good. If you come to Dallas and you take a loss there (against Texas A&M), you go to 3-2 and then you've got to kind of work out of that as opposed to being 4-1 and headed for a good stretch.
"I think that was a key game to get us 4-1 and kind of get the ball moving and the team believing we're a pretty good football team."
The Razorbacks capitalized on that belief, with Wilson leading the way. He led the SEC with an average of 285.2 yards passing per game this season, doing so despite facing consistent pressure from opposing defenses — particularly early in the season as the Razorbacks' offensive line broke in three new starters.
Those early hits — and the fact Wilson kept getting up from them — served him well in his teammates' eyes.
"Tyler did a great job at taking shots and getting back up, standing in the pocket and delivering the ball," Arkansas receiver Jarius Wright said. "We couldn't have asked for anything better from Tyler."
Still, it's those two nagging losses that remain on Wilson's mind. And no, it doesn't help that they came against the two teams playing for the BCS national championship.
"You know, there's some areas where I'd say 'Heck yeah, I'm excited by what happened this season,' but there's also some areas where you just say, 'We had some chances to win it all and accomplish our No. 1 goal,'" Wilson said. "And we didn't get to achieve that. So there's some kind of frustration looking back on it. But we accomplished a lot of great things this season."
Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who returned to the Razorbacks to replace Garrick McGee last month, first met Wilson while recruiting him out of Greenwood, Ark. Petrino left the Razorbacks to serve as Illinois' offensive coordinator the last two seasons, but he likes what he's seen on video so far of Wilson — who threw for 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions this season.
Petrino is also confident in Wilson's ability to do even more — whether that's against the Wildcats (10-2) and their 105th-ranked pass defense or moving ahead to next season.
"Tyler's done a good job," Petrino said. "He had a real good season, and the thing is you can always improve. There's still a lot of things he can get better at, but he's real accurate, got a strong arm and did some real good things."