One Down, Two To Go

FAYETTEVILLE -- Left guard Stephen Parker was oozing with confidence in the Arkansas locker room after the Razorbacks' 35-3 win against Ole Miss.

The feeling was missing a week earlier, when the Hogs were heartbroken after a disappointing, 35-32 loss at South Carolina. But Parker said teammates, coaches, Arkansas' student body, the administration and anyone else with ties to the Hogs were brimming with hope after Saturday's dominant performance against the Rebels,

"Everyone around here is like, ‘Hey, we have a chance. We're going to a bowl now,'" Parker said. "That's what we're talking about now instead of like, ‘Let's beat Ole Miss.' We beat Ole Miss and it's like, ‘We're going to a bowl.'

"We're not going home for Christmas."

Arkansas still doesn't have room for error during the final two weeks of its hunt for a seventh consecutive bowl trip, but climbed the first hurdle against the Rebels. The Hogs snapped their four-game losing skid, a funk that spanned six weeks, and gained plenty of confidence heading into the home stretch.

Now the Razorbacks (4-5, 2-4) find themselves in an identical position as 2000, needing wins at Mississippi State and against LSU in Little Rock to finish above .500. Arkansas beat both teams, which were ranked No. 13 and No. 24, respectively, to finish 6-5 and earn a bid to the Las Vegas Bowl that season.

Coach Houston Nutt said Sunday it's hard to draw comparisons, but hopes the Razorbacks scratch out similar results.

"I don't really relate 2000. I just feel different about it," Nutt said. "We have a lot more younger people. There was some good, good guys on that 2000 team. But, overall, we have more character on this team and a much tougher schedule. I just see things a lot different.

"It's the same, wins and losses, what we have to do. But I just kind of view things much different. Two different paths for two different teams."

Arkansas' maturity will be tested this week after practicing well and putting together their best all-around performance against Ole Miss.

The Razorbacks scored early and often against the Rebels, played error-free on offense and rushed for 297 yards. The defense held an opponent out of the end zone for the first time this season, didn't commit major mental busts and delivered third-and fourth-down stops to get off the field.

Nutt said it was great to see Saturday. But Arkansas needs similar performances.

"They've got to stay consistent," Nutt said. "Stay very focused with a high intensity and let's see if they're mature enough to handle it. I think they will because I think they know what's at stake. Again, our back's against the wall."

Nutt brought the bowl topic to his team's attention last week, letting the Hogs know they needed three straight wins if they planned on taking a postseason trip. He said it's important the Razorbacks concentrate on Mississippi State during practice this week, but everyone in an Arkansas uniform knows what's at stake.

He's hoping the Hogs don't make a critical mistake, thinking about the season finale against LSU too early.

"It's been our goal," Nutt said about a bowl trip. "We start out 3-1 and thought there'd be, absolutely, no problem. But right now, I'm just blinders on with totally one game at a time. Mississippi State.

"That's all that we can think about because we're not good enough to look two weeks or three weeks down the road. We can't do it."

The Razorbacks have had a history of success against Mississippi State, which is 3-6 in its first season under coach Sylvester Croom.

Arkansas has won five consecutive game against the Bulldogs, including last season's 52-6 win in Fayetteville. The Hogs last loss to Mississippi State came in 1998, when the Bulldogs squeezed out a 22-21 home win during Nutt's first season.

Tailback DeCori Birmingham said the Razorbacks have fought through too much adversity to let their bowl hopes slip away with a loss in Starkville.

"(The Ole Miss win) pumps us up," Birmingham said. "It builds our confidence to a new high. This team has never really given up. We've always stuck together. We just know now that if we keep fighting we can persevere through anything."

Florida became the seventh SEC team to become eligible this season after its 48-14 win against South Carolina last Saturday. Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky already have been eliminated from postseason contention, while Mississippi State is ineligible because of NCAA sanctions.

The Hogs are the only conference teams still fighting for a bowl berth and would likely earn a trip to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. (Dec. 28) or the EV1.Net Houston Bowl (Dec. 29) if they win their final two games.

Parker said the Hogs aren't thinking about that right now because there's plenty of work to do in the next two weeks. But, by the time it's over, the sophomore said the Hogs are confident they'll be playing somewhere this winter.

"We have that spark now," Parker said. "We know how it feels to win. Last week we thought we had it in the bag, but we had that letdown. We know how close we are and we're not going to give up. We're too good a team to give up if we see hope.

"We've got three games left, LSU at Little Rock, Mississippi State, we're going down there. They're possible wins. They're going to be tough victories, but they're winnable. (Ole Miss) will catapult us, definitely, and take us over the edge.

"Hopefully we can get on a win streak, win three in a row."

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