FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ senior class began the 2013 season with renewed hope that last season’s struggles were a thing of the past.
There was a new coach. He brought a different energy. Preseason predictions still placed Arkansas at the bottom of the SEC West standings, but there was plenty of belief the seniors would be rewarded for their struggles at the end of the season.
So Arkansas’ five-game losing streak — which has included two straight losses by a combined score of 104-7 — has been a frustrating result.
"It’s been tough," Arkansas center Travis Swanson said last week as the Razorbacks took their first break. "Obviously, when you lose, at any time, it’s tough. You’ve just got to put all that behind you, because the only thing you can do is stay positive."
Arkansas’ 20-man senior class is still clinging to hope it will enjoy a memorable ending as the final four-game stretch begins against eighth-ranked Auburn (7-1, 3-1 in SEC) on Saturday night. The Auburn game is the Razorbacks’ final in Fayetteville this season and the senior class will be recognized before the game.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wants the group rewarded on the field as well.
"The No. 1 motivation, in my opinion, for us in this week of playing Auburn is to gain respect, is to play the game the way you know you’re capable of playing," Bielema said. "Play a four-quarter game. For these seniors, it’s the last time for them in Razorback Stadium and give them something to walk out with their head high."
It would be a nice prize for a class that has experienced an unexpected roller coaster ride over the past four years.
They were young players during the two-year run that produced 21 wins in 26 games under former coach Bobby Petrino. Arkansas played in a Bowl Championship Series game for the first time in school history in 2010. They followed it up by climbing as high as No. 3 in the BCS and winning a school-record 11 games in 2011.
But they were there for the stunning fall, too. Petrino’s motorcycle accident led to his firing in Dec. 2012. There were struggles on the field under interim coach John L. Smith last season, which led to Bielema’s hiring and more struggles this season.
"When they’re on their recruiting trips, when they were as freshmen and really as sophomores, things were going pretty," Bielema said. "No one could describe to them the events that they were going to go through."
But Bielema has been impressed by the group’s perseverance through the problems since his arrival. He told them at the beginning of the season the goal was to win now, hoping they could enjoy the final season after the rigors of 2012.
It hasn’t gone as planned with Arkansas teetering close to its second straight losing record.. But Bielema met with the seniors again to kick off the bye week and assured them his thoughts about winning for the group haven’t changed.
"He was just telling us he was there for us," Arkansas receiver Javontee Herndon said about the meeting. "It’s been a rough season, but his opinion hasn’t changed about us. He told us he wants us to go out with a bang."
Herndon and several other seniors will play a part in the final result.
Starters like Swanson, Herndon, fullback Kiero Small, left tackle David Hurd, defensive end Chris Smith, defensive tackle Byran Jones, safety Eric Bennett and linebacker Jarrett Lake continue to play key roles. Tight end Austin Tate, linebacker Price Holmes and receiver Julian Horton are aiding as reserves. Others, like injured defensive tackle Robert Thomas, remain instrumental in leadership roles.
Small said their influence on the team is being tested through the five-game skid.
"I mean, as a leader it’s easy to lead a bunch of guys that are winning," Small said. "When you are blowing people out it’s easy to lead but now you look in the mirror and see yourself. We had a rough five weeks and it’s time to go and right the ship."
Arkansas has little room for error, needing three wins in its final four games to avoid its first consecutive losing seasons since 2004-05. It’s not a legacy the senior class wants to leave as the wrap up their Arkansas careers.
"It’s very urgent and it starts with this week," Herndon said about the turnaround.
It would mean plenty to an Arkansas senior class that hasn’t experienced much success the past two seasons. Bielema said he has been disappointed for them and hopes future seniors won’t endure the same struggles again under his watch.
But Smith said he’s urging Arkansas to end the frustration on senior night.
"Coach has been telling the younger guys, just play for the seniors," Smith said. "And he’s been telling the seniors just to play for each other. It’s going to be an emotional night, but at the end of the day, it’s an SEC game, and we’re just trying to win."