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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas coach Bret Bielema watches as players prepare to take the field for warmups prior to a game against Mississippi State on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in Starkville, Miss. - Photo by Jason Ivester

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- If Arkansas can beat downtrodden Missouri today at Faurot Field, the Razorbacks will top their regular-season record from last year.

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Arkansas would enter bowl season with an 8-4 record, seemingly another step forward in Coach Bret Bielema's fourth year -- after records of 3-9, 7-6 and 8-5, with the past two capped by the first back-to-back bowl victories in Arkansas history.

Arkansas (7-4, 3-4 SEC) is more than a touchdown favorite for today's 1:30 p.m. kickoff against the Tigers (3-8, 1-6).

Bielema, asked a couple of times this week whether the 2016 Razorbacks have progressed the program, gave nuanced responses.

"I get it. I know that's an easy, tangible way to look at it," Bielema said about the potential of an 8-4 record. "The one thing I always say at the beginning of the year, and I mean it throughout, is if we get better every week then we're moving forward."

The Razorbacks believe a victory over Missouri, which would make the program 5-2 in SEC road games since the start of 2015, would be progress.

"Definitely. I think it just shows the program is heading in the right direction," junior quarterback Austin Allen said. "Any time you can improve your win total from the year before it's a big accomplishment. We'll keep trying to move forward."

Finishing with back-to-back conference road victories is a priority for the Razorbacks.

"That's a good focal point for this group," freshman defensive lineman McTelvin Agim said. "We let some get away from us this year, but if we could finish on a good note for these seniors, that'd be great."

Added freshman tailback Devwah Whaley: "It's very important this week that we get that eighth win, and hopefully for the bowl game get another win. That would mean we had a pretty good season. We just want to elevate each and every year and get better."

The now-permanent crossover matchup between Arkansas and Missouri has a long way to go before it can stake a claim as a key player on the list of Thanksgiving weekend rivalries.

But Missouri linebacker Eric Beisel gave it some spice Monday when he mispronounced "Ar-Kansas," said it would be a mistake for Arkansas to show up Friday and that the Tigers would "dominate" the Razorbacks.

Missouri's only conference victory under first-year Coach Barry Odom was a 26-17 decision over Vanderbilt on Nov. 12, but the Tigers have established a calling card. Their offense averages an SEC-best 509.7 yards per game, which ranks 13th in the nation, under coordinator Josh Heupel, the Heisman Trophy runner-up at Oklahoma in 2000 who has tutored two Heisman winners in his coaching career.

Slowing powerful offenses has been a problem for Arkansas this year, particularly ones with dual-threat quarterbacks. Missouri quarterback Drew Lock has gained 219 rushing yards and has been tackled for 70 yards in losses.

In the big picture for Arkansas, an 8-4 regular-season record would be meaningful for a program trying to catch up to SEC West frontrunner Alabama and the pack of contenders behind the Tide.

The Arkansas offense -- which rebuilt along the line and had new starters at quarterback, tailback and tight end -- ranks No. 50 nationally with 432 yards per game, a drop of 21 spots and 33 yards per game from last year.

Tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. said the final two games will dictate whether Arkansas can claim progress.

"There's certainly been some signs of progress, and some games that have gotten away from us that didn't happen last year," he said. "The end of the year, if we can win this game and find a way to win another one, then I think absolutely it would be."

The defense, expected to make strides with nine starters returning, endured injuries to key players and ranks No. 85 while allowing 431.4 yards per game. That's a 27-spot drop and nearly 50 more yards per game allowed from 2015.

First-year defensive backs coach Paul Rhoads said the defense has made strides.

"Have we had some peaks and valleys throughout it? We certainly have," Rhoads said. "We've played great, we've played good, and we've played below our expectations. I think you finish the season strong and head into a good month's worth of the next preparation, and you just continue to improve what you've already started to build."

Bielema has given no indication whether he will or won't make staff changes, but one thing's for certain: Arkansas must improve its defensive approach against the teams it plays every season.

The Razorbacks allowed 30 or more points against every SEC West team this fall. Arkansas managed to go 2-4 against its SEC West foes, but the outcomes were a blend of shootouts and blowouts, the likes of which the Hogs did not endure a year ago.

The Razorbacks suffered losses by 53 points at Auburn, 28 points to LSU, 21 points to Texas A&M and 19 points to Alabama for an average losing margin of 30.25 points.

Arkansas' worst margin of defeat in 2015 was by 13 points at Alabama in a game the Razorbacks led late in the third quarter. Their losses came by an average margin of 7.2 points per game, an indication of how competitive the Razorbacks were during a 5-3 conference run.

The four SEC West teams that beat Arkansas this year averaged 47 points and 572 total yards in those games. The Razorbacks' six SEC West opponents averaged 537.2 yards and 43.3 points per game against the Hogs.

"This year has been a little bit of a different one from year's past in the fact that we won some that the outside world didn't think we would, and didn't have the final score that everybody wanted in some of the others, but we were playing to win," Bielema said. "I thought we were in every game usually going into that fourth quarter other than Auburn. That one was already decided.

"But I know this: our depth, our roster, our talent, our production, I think offensively we lead in several categories that is high up there in the SEC. We obviously have some things to clean up to get better on defense. We're excited where we're at. If we get an eighth win that'd be a huge feather in our cap, but it's not utter disappointment if we don't. We've just got to keep moving forward and get our place in the SEC."

Sports on 11/25/2016

Print Headline: Work in progress

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