FAYETTEVILLE — It’s hard to find anyone associated with Arkansas football talking about the number eight this week.
Fullback Keiro Small said it wouldn’t serve as part of Arkansas’ motivation as they prepared for today’s game against Mississippi State. Defensive end Chris Smith agreed, saying the Razorbacks are concentrating on another number – one - as they fight for their first Southeastern Conference win. And Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wouldn’t go down that road Thursday, when asked if his staff had even mentioned to their players what the program’s eighth straight loss would mean.
"We don’t talk in number of eights," Bielema said. "We talk a 1-0 mentality. … I’m tried of losing. I think that’s very, very certain. I think our players are as well."
Arkansas may not want to talk about it, but the significance of the number eight is very real for a program that carries a seven-game losing streak into today’s game against Mississippi State in Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.
A loss to the Bulldogs (4-6, 1-5 in Southeastern Conference) would be Arkansas’ eighth straight, marking the longest losing streak in school history. It’s a school record they tied in their last outing against Ole Miss on Nov. 9.
If that’s not enough, a loss today also would ensure Arkansas (3-7, 0-6 in SEC) of its first back-to-back seasons with at least eight losses and push the Razorbacks close to an 0-8 finish in conference play for the first time in school history.
All are marks the Razorbacks are eager to avoid in a disappointing 2013 season rapidly approaching its end. But avoiding historic woes hasn’t seeped into their preparation. Instead, it’s about finally reaping some tangible benefits from their work, which has continued despite the mounting losses over the past two months.
"We want to win the football game," Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. said. "There’s no doubt about that. Our kids know we haven’t won a game in awhile. They are fighting, scratching and clawing and I think we will be ready to play."
Arkansas has had two weeks to prepare for what has amounted to a battle for the bottom of college football’s toughest divisions. The SEC West boasts five teams ranked in the top 25 of the latest Bowl Championship Series standings, while its other two members have struggled to navigate the 2013 season.
The Razorbacks were officially eliminated from bowl contention with a 34-24 loss at Ole Miss last week. Mississippi State is dangerously close. The Bulldogs must beat Arkansas today and Ole Miss next week to reach the six-win mark needed for a bowl.
"It’s a big game for us right now," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "We are kind of backed in a corner, you know, having win this game to keep chances of going to our fourth straight bowl game alive. I think our guys came out pretty focused and ready to practice and ready for the task at hand. I see a lot of history available for this team. Mississippi State has never been to four straight bowl games."
Mississippi State has other historical motivations as well. The Bulldogs, who have lost three straight, haven’t dropped four in a row since the 2005 season.
Mississippi State also is looking for the program’s first win in Arkansas. The Bulldogs are 0-9-1 in the state, including an 0-6-1 mark in Fayetteville. Breaking through that barrier would give Mississippi State its first back-to-back wins against the Razorbacks since the first three games of the series in 1916, 1939 and 1992.
So Bielema and the Razorbacks know their opponent — which went toe-to-toe with top-ranked Alabama in a 20-7 loss last week — will be at its best. He still maintains Arkansas’ motivation is intact as well even though the season is nearly over.
"I’m amazed, probably more than I ever could imagine, about the resiliency of this group," Bielema said of his first Arkansas team. "I don’t think it’s a matter of them not caring. I see them fight for four quarters. They’ve gotten kidney punched I don’t know who many times, and they keep getting back up."
Arkansas wants to avoid one more blow, though, in what will be the last home game for a 20-member senior class. The group has endured an up-and-down ride at Arkansas over their careers, culminating in two consecutive losing seasons.
Starters like Small, Smith, center Travis Swanson and linebacker Jarrett Lake will have their final chance to make a lasting impression in front of the home fans against the Bulldogs. The rest of the Razorbacks want to make it a memorable one.
"That’s the main focus," Arkansas running back Alex Collins said. "We want to end it well. It’s the last home game. It’s the last time the seniors get to play at home.
"That’s my main focus is just to do my best and make it a great game for the fans as well as the seniors. That’s my main focus, making sure I make no mistakes."
Arkansas’ losing streak has spanned 71 days, dating back to the 24-3 win against Southern Miss on Sept. 14. Its SEC losing streak — which reached 10 games in the Ole Miss loss — now stretches 407 days.
Smith said earlier this week he understood why the long droughts have dominated conversation as they grow. Bielema said the Razorbacks know what’s at stake.
But everything surrounding the number eight didn’t matter. Small said the only thing Arkansas is concerned about is finally making the most of today’s opportunity.
"We know that we’re not that far away," Small said. "The scores might not project it, but we’re not that far away from being where we want to be. …
"We just want to win a game. We just want to win Coach B’s first SEC game."