FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said one of his "biggest blows" in the profession came on Nov. 9, when the Razorbacks were officially eliminated from the bowl picture with the 34-24 loss at Ole Miss.
The finality of his first season without a bowl trip as a head coach stung. The lost bowl practices — which are typically dedicated to younger players — hurt. Not as much as the missed chance for a senior class to finish on a good note.
But misery loves company. So Bielema and the Razorbacks would love to have Mississippi State share in their pain as well Saturday. The Bulldogs (4-6, 1-5 in Southeastern Conference) enter Saturday’s game needing wins against Arkansas (3-7, 0-6 in SEC) and in-state rival Ole Miss to become bowl eligible.
Bielema knows Mississippi State will be motivated. He believes his team is, too.
"Every coach is going to have a different tactic to go into every game," Bielema said. "Ours is last chance for us to play in Arkansas, our chance for our seniors to go out and win in front of their families. But bowl games are great motivators."
Mississippi State is battling to avoid its first losing season since 2009, when coach Dan Mullen was in his first year with the program. Its determination to avoid Arkansas’ fate looked apparent Saturday night, when the Bulldogs went toe-to-toe with top-ranked Alabama in Starkville, Miss.
Alabama struggled to accomplish much against the Bulldogs, who forced the Crimson Tide into a season-high four turnovers. It helped Mississippi State hang around against the heavy favorite before eventually suffering a 20-7 loss.
It still left an impression on Bielema, whose team suffered a 52-0 loss at Alabama.
"I saw a Mississippi State defense that they knew they were playing a very good Alabama offense," Bielema said. "When they had that first pick, you could just see it give life to that other side. To give a little bit of juice when (running back T.J.) Yeldon put the ball on the ground, that gave them a little more juice even though it was at the end of a big run. That’s what you need. You need something to bring you over the hump. Let’s hope they don’t continue to find their way this weekend."
Arkansas carries a seven-game losing streak into the week, which has equaled a school record. It also has lost 10 straight SEC games dating back to last season.
Defensive end Chris Smith said the realization that Arkansas won’t be going to a bowl hit him hard after the Ole Miss loss. But he said the Razorbacks used the bye week to regroup and prepare for their final two-game stretch, which begins against Mississippi State in Little Rock on Saturday.
"We’ve just got to move forward in these last two games," Smith said. "They’re still SEC games. We’ve got to play them. We can’t go to a bowl game, but the one thing we can do is just get our first SEC win. And I feel like that’s — Mississippi State and LSU — if we come out to play we can do this. So that’s one thing we can still fight for."
The Razorbacks are 10-1-1 against the Bulldogs in their home state. The only loss came during the first game in the series, when Mississippi State (then Mississippi A&M) beat Arkansas 20-7 in Ft. Smith.
Arkansas is 9-0-1 against Mississippi State at home since joining the SEC in 1992, which includes a 6-0-1 mark in Little Rock. The Razorbacks have won their past five home games against the Bulldogs by an average score of 43-17.
But Arkansas — which hasn’t scored more than 34 points this season and has allowed more than 30 in six straight games — isn’t expecting an easy Saturday.
Neither is Mississippi State, which is trying to keep its bowl hopes alive in a game against the two teams at the bottom of the SEC West standings.
"I think our guys know what’s at stake," Bielema said. "They obviously want to win an SEC football game as bad as anybody. Mississippi State is a good football team that played very, very well on Saturday night and has gotten some bad breaks, but by the same account has done some really good things. It should be a very interesting game."