Drama and intrigue takes center stage on Saturday in the SEC West when the Mississippi State Bulldogs (7-3, 3-3 SEC) travel to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks (4-6, 1-5). What started out as a bragging rights kind of game with bowl implications lurking in the background for both squads has taken a quick turn for the Hogs with the dismissal of athletic director Jeff Long.
Last week, Mississippi State was an overthrown Nick Fitzgerald pass away from potentially tying Alabama. The Bulldogs gave the Crimson Tide their toughest game of the season, walking off the field with their heads held high despite the disappointment of a 31-24 loss. Fitzgerald held his own against the nation’s No. 2 defense, completing 13 of 24 passes for 158 yards without an interception to go along with 81 rushing yards and a score.
In Baton Rouge, Arkansas stuck with the same formula over the past two seasons under head coach Bret Bielema — play tough in the first half and watch a potential win fade away in the second half. The Razorbacks went into the locker room tied but then surrendered 12 points in the third quarter and 14 in the fourth for a 33-10 defeat. Starting quarterback Austin Allen returned after a four-game absence due to a shoulder injury. The senior completed 13 of 23 passes for 140 yards, as the Hogs managed 318 total yards on the road against LSU.
Mississippi State may smell blood in the water with Arkansas limping to the finish line and with Bielema's status an unknown going forward, but do the Bulldogs have any gas left in the tank after battling Alabama down to the wire?
Mississippi State at Arkansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Mississippi State -12.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Motivation of the Arkansas players
With the announcement that Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long was terminated from his post on Wednesday, the writing on the wall for Bret Bielema is there for all to read. Bielema’s time in Fayetteville may be drawing to an end soon, but how will the players respond? Does this serve as a motivational tool for four quarters of max effort, or are the players emotionally finished after a tough season all the way around?
2. Arkansas’ offensive production
The Bulldogs have one of the saltiest defenses in the nation holding teams to 305 total yards a game. Arkansas’ effort in the run game has been up and down all season but has picked up over the past four games with an average of 208 rushing yards per contest. Quarterback Austin Allen showed some rust in the pocket against a talented LSU defense last week, but managed to avoid negative plays with zero interceptions and just one sack taken.
In a 58-42 road win against the Bulldogs last season, Allen was sharp (18-for-25, 303 yards, 2 TDs) but Todd Grantham was not MSU’s defensive coordinator then. If the Hogs are thinking upset, their senior leader will need to replicate his 2016 performance.
3. Mississippi State’s run game
The success of the Bulldogs' offense is linked directly to dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, more concisely his ability to move the chains with his legs. The team is mowing over the opposition for 251 rushing yards a game, third best in the SEC. Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams are a deadly one-two punch with Williams leading the team in rushing by just six yards (873) over his quarterback. In the red zone, Fitzgerald is the one to watch with 13 rushing scores.
Arkansas moved to a 3-4 defense for games like this, but stopping the run this season has been a challenge. The Hogs are being trampled for 191 yards on the ground a game.
Games like this are what makes college football fun to watch because no one knows what will happen. Arkansas could come out strong and roll for an upset victory keeping Bret Bielema on track for a potential bowl berth (if he lasts that long), or come out flat and lose by three scores.
Mississippi State has a unique challenge having to get up for Arkansas on the road after playing a very physical Alabama team. Can the Bulldogs finish strong and get head coach Dan Mullen his first eight-win season since 2015?
Prediction: Mississippi State 42, Arkansas 17
— 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 and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.