Arkansas sophomore linebacker Dre Greenlaw / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
A victory Saturday in the Arkansas-Mississippi State football game won’t necessary guarantee that the winner will stay out of the SEC Western Division cellar, but it will give that program a leg up on the loser.
That may sound like small stakes with two games left in the regular season, but how each team closes will determine how the two program’s fans feel going into the holiday season.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. at Starkville, Miss. The game will be televised by ESPNU.
Arkansas, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss are tied at the bottom of the SEC West with 2-4 league records. The Razorbacks are already bowl eligible with a 6-4 overall mark, but the Bulldogs (4-6 overall) and Rebels (5-5 overall) still have work to do.
Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs must defeat Arkansas and then beat archrival Ole Miss on Nov. 26 to reach six wins and bowl eligibility. Ole Miss could wrap up a bowl trip this Saturday with a victory at Vanderbilt.
A win Saturday by the Razorbacks would put them in position to finish the regular season with eight victories with a victory at Missouri on Nov. 25, the most for the program since 2011 when Bobby Petrino’s final Arkansas squad finished 11-2.
Eight victories would keep the Razorbacks in play for a solid bowl trip, possibly to the Music City Bowl in Nashville. The Liberty Bowl in Memphis and the Texas Bowl in Houston would also be options, but with Arkansas playing in those two bowls respectively the last two seasons, the SEC might look to send Arkansas elsewhere.
While an eight-win Arkansas team could be considered for the Outback Bowl in Orlando, Fla., the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., or the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., the SEC office is more likely to place programs from a closer proximity at those sites for better ticket sales.
However, if the Hogs limp into bowl season with six or seven wins, Arkansas could fall further down the SEC’s pecking order with the Independence or the even the Birmingham bowls as options.
Bielema and Mullen, however, aren’t worried about bowls right now. Saturday’s game looms large for both teams in what appears to be fairly evenly matched game.
Both are bouncing back from demoralizing losses. Alabama rolled up the Bulldogs, 51-3, last Saturday, while LSU had their way with the Hogs, 38-10.
Bielema said the Razorbacks are healthy physically, but one has to wonder about the team’s mindset. The roller-coaster season has been mentally grueling for a Razorbacks team that expected to perform better than it has. The Hogs have had close wins, but every loss has been a route
While competition plays a part in those losses, Arkansas’ defense is ranked dead last in the nation in rush defense. That’s not good, considering MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has proven to be a very effective runner as well as a solid passer.
“He’s a big quarterback,” Bielema said on the SEC teleconference. “He’s 6-5 and 230, and he looks every bit of it looking eye-to-eye with D-linemen. Safeties and cornerbacks have had a hard time brining him down. He throws a good ball. When he is on, he throws very accurately.”
Fitzgerald is completing 53 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He leads the bulldogs in rushing with 854 yards and 8 touchdowns on 146 carries.
“Obviously you see what Dak [Prescott] is doing in the NFL, and that’s a direct byproduct of what he learned at Mississippi State,” Bielema said. “Dan and his staff are doing a very good job working with Fitzgerald.”
Fitzgerald has improved incrementally throughout the season, Mullen said, though it wasn’t apparent against Alabama.
“Nick has played very well for us,” Mullen said on the SEC teleconference. “He’s having to lead a very young team. I think he’s progressed, and I’ve seen him progress from one week to the next.”
The good news for the Razorbacks is that overall, the Bulldogs are ranked 84th in the nation in total defense, which is even worse than the Hogs, which are ranked 77th.
“Arkansas is a very physical team,” Mullen said. It always seems like it goes down to the very last play of the game against them.”
The Bulldogs have won the last four games in the series, including three against the Bielema-coached Razorbacks.
“We’ve just found a way to make play at the end of the game.” Mullen said. “I don’t know if winning four in a row helps us this year. We’re pretty young. Not many of our guys played in those games.”
Bielema seemed upbeat despite the Hogs’ disturbing loss to LSU in which the Hogs struggled in the running and passing game.
“We’re excited to head over there,” Bielema said. “We’re trying to get ourselves back on track and trying to win one. It’s a tough place to play with all the cowbells, but that’s the SEC. Everyplace is tough. It’s a great environment, and you get excited to go play there.”
The big question for the Razorbacks is can they continue to be interested in a season that has gotten away from them. It appeared Arkansas had righted its ship with a 31-10 blowout of Florida, but LSU overpowered the Hogs. Will they rebound?
My guess is they will. I think the game will be close, but Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen will rebound from his poor performance against LSU and with his salty receiving troops will get the job done for the Razorbacks.
Prediction: Arkansas 38, MSU 31