The SEC West Division title has been claimed with Alabama once again reigning supreme. What is left among the rest is bragging rights, bowl bids, and staying out of the division cellar. When the Arkansas Razorbacks (6-4, 2-4 SEC) and Mississippi State Bulldogs (4-6, 2-4) square off on Saturday, both squads have various streaks on the line they are seeking to keep alive while trying to avoid the dubious honor of cellar dweller.
Using the eyeball test, and an ongoing trend, one would assume Arkansas would have an easy go against Mississippi State on Saturday. The Razorbacks have a winning record, Mississippi State does not, and Arkansas has a more balanced offense, while the Bulldogs rely solely on quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. The trouble is, the Hogs have been Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this season on offense and defense, alternating wins and losses since a Sept. 24 defeat by Texas A&M. If the trend continues, Arkansas will leave Starkville with another win.
The Hogs have not lost to an unranked team since Mississippi State came into Fayetteville a year ago and won 51-50 behind quarterback Dak Prescott. That road win in 2015 should give the Bulldogs and MSU fans a lot of reasons to believe a victory can be had Saturday night. Fitzgerald has been electric at times this season, proving to be one of the top playmakers in the nation with his 270 total yards of offense per game. The Hogs line up well against more traditional offenses but have struggled against spread offenses, especially ones that feature talented, dual-threat quarterbacks.
Arkansas at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Mississippi State -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Arkansas Limit Nick Fitzgerald?
Mississippi State’s sophomore quarterback is not a complete dual threat yet, but is showing signs of being an All-SEC-caliber performer in the near future. After posting 417 passing yards and 119 rushing against Samford and going for 209 passing and 182 rushing against Texas A&M, Fitzgerald was limited to 160 total yards (just 15 rushing) last week against Alabama. But that’s not surprising given how stingy the Crimson Tide’s defense has been. But as goes Fitzgerald, so does the Bulldogs’ offense.
The Razorbacks have been gashed on the ground recently by both Auburn (SEC-record 543 rushing yards) and LSU (390). The last running quarterback Arkansas faced was Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly. He threw for 253 yards and ran for 89 and two touchdowns, but the Hogs won the game 34-30 on the strength of their ground game.
2. Bounce-Back Game for Austin Allen?
Arkansas’ starting quarterback turned in his first poor performance of the season last week against LSU. The sophomore completed fewer than half of his passes for the first time, finishing just 15-of-31 for 210 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. The Razorbacks need Allen to look more like he did against Florida (15-for-26, 243 yds., TD, INT), make just enough plays from the pocket to keep defenses honest and prevent them from loading up the box to slow down the Hogs’ running game.
A big weakness for Mississippi State has been in defending the pass. Over the past four games, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 355 passing yards against Kentucky, Samford, Texas A&M and Alabama. None of the teams on the list have been as productive through the air as Arkansas. MSU’s is 117th in the FBS in pass defense, so this may be just the matchup Allen needs to get back on track.
3. Will Either Defense be Able to Stop the Run?
Statistically, Mississippi State is average against the rush, allowing 157 yards per game, which places the Bulldogs 52nd in the FBS. Arkansas has fared even worse, sitting near the bottom (104th) at 217 rushing yards per game allowed. But the Razorbacks’ defense has been up to the task at times, including when it held Florida to just 14 yards on the ground on 12 carries a few weeks ago. Mississippi State has been a little more generous recently, allowing 188 rushing yards per game over its last six contests.
The Bulldogs’ leading rusher is Fitzgerald (854 yards, 8 TD) followed by Aeris Williams (402, 2). For Arkansas, Rawleigh Williams is the Razorbacks’ latest 1,000-yard rusher, as he enters this game third in the SEC in rushing (1,004 yards). He’s also tied for 10th with seven rushing touchdowns.
Neither team has been great against the run in recent weeks. Can either defense rise to the occasion in this game or will it be business as usual on the ground?
Over the past two years (starting Oct. 2014), Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is 9-0 following an SEC loss. If the win one, lose one, trend is in play here, the Razorbacks will leave Starkville victorious.
For Mississippi State, Saturday is Senior Night at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field. Head coach Dan Mullen is graduating the most successful senior class the Bulldogs have ever seen. MSU has gone to a bowl game in six straight seasons. A loss to Arkansas would end this streak. Mississippi State cannot look ahead to next Saturday’s Egg Bowl with Ole Miss, as the Bulldogs must win to keep their postseason hopes alive.
There is still plenty left to play for on each side. At this point in a long season, it may come down to which team wants it more.
Prediction: Arkansas 28, Mississippi State 27
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.