Razorbacks seek to even up Battle Line Rivalry with Mizzou

Arkansas Senior Quarterback Brandon Allen / Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The older I get, the shorter college football season gets, or at least it seems that way. This season zipped by to me. The realization that Friday’s 1:30 p.m., CBS-televised contest against the Missouri Tigers will be the Hogs’ last regular-season game is really just dawning on me.

The last half of the season has been filled with excitement including overtime games, Top-25 upsets, broken records, outstanding progress and one incredibly improbable play that won’t be soon forgotten.

Like the first half of the season, the back end had its frustrations. The Razorbacks’ 51-50 loss to Mississippi State was a sobering affair, bringing most Hog fans back to earth. It was a weird game that not only showcased the strides the Razorback program has made under Bret Bielema but also the distinct deficiencies that still exist.

Considering how worn down Arkansas’ defense appeared against the Bulldogs, it’s probably not a bad thing the Razorbacks (6-5, 4-3 SEC) do wind up the regular season on Friday. With 11 games in the book, few if any players on the college football landscape are entirely healthy, but the Hogs’ lack of depth — linebacker Brooks Ellis played every defensive play against the Bulldogs — reared its ugly head as Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and his offensive mates proved to be too much for the Razorbacks to handle time and time again.

What: Arkansas vs. Missouri
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
When: 1:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27, 2016
Radio: 92.1, 99.5, 105.3, 93.3 FM
More Info: Visit ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Even with the defensive deficiencies, the Razorbacks managed — thanks to Bulldogs’ turnovers — to have a shot to win the game in its final seconds. If you didn’t have a rooting interest, the game had to be mighty fun to watch.

Friday’s game isn’t expected to be quite as explosive. Gary Pinkel, who will coach his last regular-season game as the Tigers’ coach after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, has watched his offense struggle mightily, while the Tigers’ staunch defense kept them within striking distance in most of their games. Despite the fact that the Razorbacks were favored as much as 14.5 points by odds makers this week, it’s difficult to convince myself that his game will be anything but close when all is said and done.

Part of this belief stems from Friday’s weather forecast. It’s going to be cool and wet, possibly abundantly wet, making for a very soggy Senior Day. Rain is generally a great equalizer, favoring defenses. The Tigers are salty enough on defense, without getting any favors from Mother Nature. That being said, the Razorbacks have played well when facing rainy conditions this year. Arkansas’ turf is artificial so it won’t be mud bath, but wet footballs make turnovers all the more possible.

As wary as I am of the Tigers, who are playing for bowl eligibility as well as for their exiting coach’s honor, I do expect the Razorbacks to win. Senior quarterback Brandon Allen is too hot right now to doubt. He’s playing as well as any Razorbacks quarterback has in recent memory, and his receiving corps has matured into one of the most potent in the SEC. With every touchdown he throws, he engraves his name deeper and deeper into the Razorbacks record book.

It really has been a joy to watch Allen mature as player and a leader this season as his receiving corps and offensive line matured around him.

As mentioned before, Friday is Senior Day for the Hogs, and it will be the last home game for several seniors and likely some juniors, too. While the juniors that are planning to make the leap to the NFL have been classy enough to skirt the topic, it seems likely running back Alex Collins will play his final home game for the Hogs on Friday.

No doubt, tight end Hunter Henry, a Mackey Award finalist, would be drafted if he opted to leave early. So might offensive tackles Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper, although they both could use more seasoning on the college level. No matter, whether the seniors are headed to the NFL or the real world, their teammates will want to send them out with a bang.

While Arkansas is already bowl eligible for the second season in a row, a seventh regular-season victory would give the Razorbacks a winning record in the SEC for the first time since 2011, which is a significant benchmark for Bielema.

It would also give the Hogs a shot of energy going into finals, bowl practices and the bowl trip itself. Teams often unravel during the month-long wait between the end of the regular season and the bowl game, especially ones that don’t have a goal. A seventh win Friday would make it possible for the team to win eight in the postseason. An eight-win season would be a step forward from last season’s seven victories. Having such a goal could work in the coaching staff’s favor in their effort to keep the team focused.

Another win could also help the Razorbacks in the pecking order when the SEC makes its decision on where to place its bowl-eligible squads.

A Razorback victory would also sooth the fans’ wounds left over from last week’s loss to Mississippi State, which no doubt weighs a bit on just about everyone involved with the football program.

The game scares me because of the emotional meaning it could have for the Missouri coaches and players, and the possibility of a hangover from last week’s tough loss. Intangibles are hard to quantify in a matchup like this, but based on what has transpired this season, the Razorbacks are the better team and should win.

My prediction is Arkansas 31, Missouri 24, but it’s not one I have a ton of faith in.