Meridian Star

November 22, 2013

Arkansas hosts Mississippi State in SEC matchup

KURT VOIGT, AP Sports Writer
Associated Press

FAETTEVILLE, Ark. — Bret Bielema's first season at Arkansas hasn't exactly gone as he had hoped, with the Razorbacks' bowl chances already dashed and two games still remaining.

This year will mark the first time in eight seasons as a head coach that Bielema won't reach a bowl game, a fact that was cemented two weeks ago when Arkansas (3-7, 0-6 Southeastern Conference) lost its seventh straight game.

"It's one of the biggest blows I took was when I was still holding out hope for every one of those last games, to give those seniors a chance to go to a bowl game and experience a little bit of postseason play," Bielema said.

With the possibility of postseason play no longer in the picture, Bielema and the Razorbacks will try to pass along their bowl-less fate on Saturday when they host Mississippi State (4-6, 1-5).

The Bulldogs, coming off a 20-7 loss to No. 1 Alabama, need wins in each of their last two games to become bowl eligible for the fourth straight season. Before Mississippi State can consider the possibility of playing for a bowl berth in next week's Egg Bowl against rival Ole Miss, it must first handle the struggling Razorbacks — without a clear idea of who will be under center.

Quarterbacks Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott have been limited in practice this week while recovering from injuries, leaving freshman Damian Williams — who played in last week's loss to the Crimson Tide — as a possibility on Saturday.

The closest Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen has come to naming a starter this week has been to say he'll likely make a decision "probably after warmups on gameday."

"They're all doing much, much better," Mullen said. "I don't know who's going to start yet for us. We've got to see who's the healthiest and who's had the best week of practice."

Regardless of who plays for Mississippi State, the game will hold plenty of intrigue for a school that's never gone to four straight bowl games — or won in the state of Arkansas. The Bulldogs are 0-9-1 all-time in the state, with the tie coming in Little Rock in 1993, Arkansas' second season in the SEC.

Bielema has spent this week appealing to the Razorbacks' pride to finish out the season on a high note.

He has already set the mark for the longest losing streak in his coaching career this season, and hopes to avoid setting the Arkansas record for futility on Saturday. The Razorbacks have never lost eight games in a row in school history.

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Five things to watch for when the Razorbacks host Mississippi State:

SUPER FROSH: While Arkansas has struggled this season, running back Alex Collins is closing in on one of the best freshman seasons in school history. The Florida native is fifth in the SEC with 946 yards rushing this season, and he's just 168 yards away from topping former Razorbacks running back Darren McFadden for the most rushing yards in school history by a freshman. "We want to finish with a bang, especially since this is the last home game for our seniors," Collins said. "I just want to play strong for them. Why not go out and win? That's our main focus."

STREAKING BULLDOGS: The Razorbacks aren't the only team coming into Saturday on a losing streak. Despite playing well in last week's loss to Alabama, Mississippi State has lost three straight games — with its last win coming on Oct. 24 against Kentucky. The Bulldogs have never lost four in a row under Mullen, and the last time they lost as many as four in a row was a seven-game losing stretch in 2005.

SECONDARY CONCERN: Whoever starts at quarterback for Mississippi State figures to feel comfortable about the prospect of facing the worst secondary in the SEC. Arkansas is last in the league in passing defense efficiency, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 65.1 percent of their passes this season, and it allowed 428 yards passing two weeks again in a loss to the Rebels.

ALLEN'S PROGRESS: Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen is last among starters in the SEC in passing efficiency, but the sophomore threw for 193 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Ole Miss. Bielema said Allen will have a "tremendous advantage" over the other quarterbacks during the spring, though he'll have no better chance to prove himself than this week and next against LSU.

BACK-TO-BACK HOPES: Mississippi State has won three straight against the Razorbacks only once, dating back to wins in 1916, 1939 and 1992. A win on Saturday would mark the Bulldogs' first two-game winning streak against Arkansas since then.