Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Last year, when the Missouri football team played Arkansas in a regular-season finale, it did so hoping to punch a ticket to a postseason game. This year, the same is true.
That’s about all that hasn’t changed.
The Battle Line Rivalry trophy got a redesign, the carrot on a stick for the Tigers is now a low-level bowl appearance — not a trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game — and the contest could be the last for Missouri’s all-time winningest coach, Gary Pinkel.
If Pinkel, who is retiring after the season for health reasons, had his way, you wouldn’t even think about that last part.
“Honestly, I kind of wish I was out of it,” he said. “I felt bad the other night, when a couple players came over and picked me up and took me off the field (after a loss to Tennessee). That was very nice of them to do it. I’m grumpy.”
And as for the Missouri-Arkansas rivalry: It’s underdeveloped at best and overly manufactured at worst.
“Well, here’s an interesting thing,” defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “We’re playing Arkansas, and they’re our rivals, and none of us have ever been to their stadium.”
And you could even ignore the bowl-eligibility component if you’d like, considering the Tigers could hypothetically get a bowl bid at 5-7. (More on that later.)
So perhaps it’s easiest just to focus on what’s on the field, and it’s hard not to start with the Arkansas offense. The Razorbacks (6-5, 4-3 SEC) are coming off a 51-50 loss to Mississippi State and have scored 251 points in their last five games.
Quarterback Brandon Allen is third in the SEC with 3,023 passing yards, with conference highs in yards per attempt (9.25) and quarterback rating (168.39).
Allen threw for just 133 yards on 13-of-30 passing last year when Missouri defeated Arkansas 21-14 in Columbia.
“He is a guy that, if you looked at him last year and looked at him now, he’s two different players,” Kuligowski said. “Now, he was hurt when we played him last year. I know that. But he’s become a much better, complete quarterback, doing a great job of throwing the ball around, and with that offense, obviously, if they can pass as well as they can run, then they’re going to have a lot of success.”
That potent run game has been propelled by Alex Collins, whose 1,262 rushing yards are third in the conference, as are his 14 rushing touchdowns.
“One snap they will set you up with speed and make you miss, and the next snap they’re going to lower the shoulder and get in your business a little bit,” defensive coordinator Barry Odom said. “So I’m impressed with them. They’ve done a great job recruiting and have got a good offensive scheme, and I look forward to the opportunity.”
Missouri (5-6, 1-6 SEC) struggled against the run in its game with Tennessee, especially in the first half when Jalen Hurd became the first back to run for 100 yards against Missouri all year. Hurd finished with 151 rushing yards, and the Volunteers had 248 as a whole — although they did need 51 rushing attempts to do so.
“Well, they ran the ball a boatload of times, so that helps,” Kuligowski said. “When you run the ball a whole bunch, you end up getting a lot of yards. As many points as they had been scoring, to hold them to 19 points and to be able to hold them to the (337 total) yards they had is honestly a pretty good effort against Tennessee.”
Despite a less-than-stellar tackling effort, the Missouri defense did hold Tennessee to its third-worst offensive performance of the year in terms of yards — second worst in terms of points.
But the Missouri defense will need to be at its best against an Arkansas offense that has had a 600-yard performance and a 500-yard performance more recently than it’s had a game with less than 400 yards. And the Missouri offense hasn’t exactly made things easy on the Tigers’ defense, averaging just more than 14 points a game.
Missouri will need an offensive performance more like the one it had against BYU, when it gained 434 yards and scored 20 points, than it did against Tennessee: 223 yards, eight points.
It could prove to be the difference between winning and losing in Pinkel’s last game.
And as Pinkel pointed out, he’s not like Frank Beamer, the retiring Virginia Tech coach who saluted the crowd after losing his last game at home. There’s only one result the 15-year Missouri coach will be able to enjoy.
“I just can’t separate the two,” he said. “You win or you lose. And I don’t like to lose.”
Even with a loss, there’s a chance Pinkel could get to coach another game. There are 40 bowl games this season, not counting the championship game, which will be played by the winners of the Cotton and Orange bowls. That means 80 teams will accept bowl bids.
Traditionally, six wins are necessary to become bowl eligible, but that could leave some blank spaces this postseason. There are currently 71 teams with six or more wins in the Football Bowl Subdivision. There are 13 teams with five wins with one game to play, and six of them are favored to win this week. Missouri is currently a two-touchdown underdog to Arkansas.
And four teams have four wins with two games to play. One team, South Alabama, has five wins and two games left to play.
If it does come down to 5-7 teams, the bowls would go to the teams with the best Academic Progress Rates. Of the aforementioned 18 teams, Missouri is tied with Kansas State for the fifth-best APR, a 976. The scores were last listed for 2013-14.
Of course, Missouri would still have to an accept a bid as a losing team if it receives one. Pinkel said he had not considered the possibility and the decision would be up to director of athletics Mack Rhoades. The fact Missouri is currently in a coaching search could complicate things further.
Senior captain Evan Boehm said he would like to play in a bowl at 5-7 if it came to that. But he’s hoping it doesn’t.
“I don’t want to be a 5-7 team on the verge,” he said. “I want to be a 6-6 team. I want to get that bowl victory. I want to get that sixth win and make sure we go to a bowl.”
Receiver Wesley Leftwich, also a senior, would also be up for a bowl bid at 5-7.
“It’s an extra game for me, and it’s not like we didn’t earn it,” he said. “Yeah, you’ve got to be 6-6, but 5-7, we get our work done in academics and so I mean in that respect we deserve it. If we’re 5-7, I would be happy with it, personally. I’d enjoy it.”
According to the NCAA, this is how APR is determined: “Each student-athlete receiving athletically related financial aid earns one point for staying in school and one point for being academically eligible. A team’s total points are divided by points possible and then multiplied by 1,000 to equal the team’s Academic Progress Rate. In addition to a team’s current-year APR, its rolling four-year APR is also used to determine accountability.”