FAYETTEVILLE — As hard as it is to believe in the midst of a five-game losing streak, Arkansas football still has a path to reaching bowl eligibility.
There is very little margin for error at this point, though, as the Razorbacks must win four of their final five games to reach the six-win mark. That’s why the Arkansas vs Mississippi State matchup on Saturday is so important — a fact that head coach Sam Pittman isn’t shying away from.
“We have to win,” Pittman said Monday. “Have to win Saturday. When the season starts, you have all these goals and there are still some that we have. Now, they may have been down here to get up here, but there are still some attainable goals that we have, and our kids know (that).
“This game Saturday is a big, big game for us. They all are, but you keep backing yourself up into a corner, at some point you have to go forward. We’ve proven that we’ve got a pretty good football team. We haven’t proven we can win. So, we’ve got to do that Saturday.”
The fourth-year coach did everything but describe Arkansas vs Mississippi State — which is scheduled for 11 a.m. CT and will air on the SEC Network — as “must-win.” The players took care of that when they met with reporters after Tuesday’s practice.
“We know it’s a must-win game for our team and for the next few weeks,” punter Max Fletcher said. “We start here and then we’re going to finish strong.”
Finishing strong isn’t just a cliche Fletcher regurgitated from the coaching staff. The way Arkansas’ schedule is set up, that is actually possible.
The Razorbacks are coming out of a brutal four-game stretch in which they played four straight SEC teams away from home. Three of them were one-possession losses in true road games against ranked foes, while the other was a 12-point loss to Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium.
It was the first time since 1911 that Arkansas played four consecutive games outside of the state’s borders and played a large role in it owning the No. 1 strength of schedule in college football, according to ESPN. Meanwhile, no other team in the SEC has played more than two consecutive road games.
On Tuesday, wide receiver Isaiah Sategna was asked about that stretch and if it felt like the Razorbacks could never catch a break, and the redshirt freshman responded honestly.
“I mean, kind of, but it’s the SEC so this is what we signed up for,” Sategna said. “We knew that we would be playing the best and that’s what we want. We’re not trying to back away from competition or anything. So, we’re happy for it.”
Arkansas Football Schedule Eases Up
Even after the disappointing seven-point home loss to BYU, a team it beat by 17 on the road last year, Arkansas football pushed LSU to the brink in Baton Rouge.
Their last time out, the Razorbacks nearly rallied back from an 18-point deficit against Alabama in Tuscaloosa. No one likes to claim “moral victories,” especially when close losses have almost become the norm for Arkansas football, but it is evidence that the team hasn’t let go of the proverbial rope despite the losing streak.
“I think there is a fine line to the urgency of what needs to get done to keep some of your goals of the season alive versus panic,” Pittman said. “I don’t think anybody in the building has panicked, nor our team. … I think we’re just an urgent team that’s hungry to win.”
That’s an important characteristic because the schedule lets up significantly starting Saturday against Mississippi State.
Arkansas is a 6.5-point favorite, according to Bet Saracen, and ESPN’s Football Power Index gives it a 67.3% chance to win. The FPI actually favors the Razorbacks in five of their six remaining games, with the outlier being a trip to Florida on Nov. 4.
That is after an open date, though, and it’s essentially a toss-up with the FPI giving Arkansas a 48.3% chance to win, so it’s conceivable that it can get on a roll to end the year.
“We’ve got to get a win for our fans,” defensive end Landon Jackson said. “We’ve got to get a win for us so we can start the run.”
After the trip to Gainesville, the Razorbacks return to Fayetteville for three straight home games to cap the regular season. That stretch features a rent-a-win against Florida International sandwiched around SEC games against Auburn and Missouri.
Auburn, like Arkansas and Mississippi State, is winless in conference play. The most challenging game left is likely the Battle Line Rivalry on Black Friday. Despite Missouri being 6-1 and ranked No. 20 in the AP Poll, the FPI gives the Razorbacks a 54.1% chance to win that matchup.
Altogether, the FPI’s game-by-game percentages, which can be found below, give Arkansas a 43.1% chance to reach bowl eligibility — a surprisingly high number for a 2-5 team that’s lost five straight.
“Let’s make no mistake about it, we want to go to a bowl and we need to win,” Pittman said. “Again, I don’t want to get crucified because I’m sitting here and (some say), ‘Well, all he wants to do is go to bowls.’ That’s not (what I’m saying)… It’s reality. It ain’t what we wanted, but it’s reality. We want to get to a bowl game. To do that, we’ve got to win Saturday, in my opinion.”
FPI Projections for Remaining Games
|Date||Game||Arkansas’ Chance of Winning|
(per ESPN’s FPI)
|Oct. 21||vs. Mississippi State||67.3%|
|Nov. 4||at Florida||48.3%|
|Nov. 11||vs. Auburn||62.1%|
|Nov. 18||vs. Florida International||97.8%|
|Nov. 24||vs. Missouri||54.1%|
FPI Predicts Arkansas Football’s Final 2023 Record
|Record||Chance of Happening|
(per ESPN’s FPI)
Hear both Zach Arnett and Sam Pittman preview the Arkansas vs Mississippi State matchup on the weekly SEC coaches teleconference:
Also, leave it to comedian Matt Besser to summon the ghost of Mike Leach:
More coverage of Arkansas football and Arkansas vs Mississippi State from BoAS…