FAYETTEVILLE Many around the Arkansas football program expected changes in leadership amid the Razorbacks' dreadful season.
Little did they know those changes would reach all the way to the top, with athletic director Jeff Long fired Wednesday . The school's football woes were near the top of the reasons why.
The Razorbacks (4-6, 1-5 Southeastern Conference) will try to refocus and regroup from Long's shocking dismissal when they host No. 16 Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3) on Saturday. Arkansas needs to win its final two games to ensure a fourth straight bowl game.
It may be a must-win for fifth-year coach Bret Bielema to ensure his future at the school, if Long's firing is any indication of frustration from the school's leadership with more than half a decade of struggles on the field.
"It's tough," Arkansas cornerback Kevin Richardson said of Long's firing. "That's a guy that cares, not just about football, but every program on this campus. ... It's tough to see him go."
The Razorbacks are 29-32 under Bielema, including 11-27 in the SEC — and they have only one win this season over a Power Five conference school (Mississippi).
They're facing a Bulldogs team Saturday that's still smarting from a narrow loss to No. 1 Alabama a week ago. Mississippi State has one of the top quarterbacks in the conference in Nick Fitzgerald.
"Obviously a big challenge for us this week coming off a big game last week," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "... (Arkansas is) a team that's where we've been before; they're fighting for bowl eligibility. They've got everything on the line to play for."
Some other things to watch as Arkansas tries to regroup following its busy week:
Arkansas freshman Cole Kelley has seen action in five straight games, including four starts, while senior quarterback Austin Allen has recovered from a shoulder injury. Kelley won't play on Saturday following an arrest last week on suspicion of driving while intoxicated — with Bielema saying the 6-foot-7 Kelley is suspended indefinitely.
Fitzgerald has run for more than 2,200 yards and 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. When the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder has run for at least 100 yards this season, the Bulldogs have a 5-0 record. When he doesn't, they're 2-3.
Arkansas is 111th in the country with an average of 2.9 sacks allowed per game, and it suffered another blow this week when guard Ty Clary was lost for the rest of the regular season with a knee injury. Also, junior guard Hjalte Froholdt sprained an ankle in last week's loss to LSU but is expected back Saturday.
ANYONE CAN CATCH IT
Mississippi State doesn't have a player with more than 275 yards receiving this season, which is both a positive and negative. While it's true the Bulldogs don't have a star receiver on the roster, opposing defenses don't have much clue about where the ball is going through the air. Against Alabama last weekend, Fitzgerald's first 10 completions were to 10 different receivers.
Mississippi State junior defensive lineman Montez Sweat has emerged as the Bulldogs' top pass-rushing threat. After finishing with no sacks in the first four games, Sweat has a team-high 6 ½ sacks in his last six games — along with nine tackles for losses overall.