Missouri played like a team that had qualified for a bowl the week before. Arkansas played like one at the end of a lost season. Neither team had much in the way of stakes, and both of its fates past Saturday seemed sealed even at kickoff: The Tigers will make their first bowl game since 2015, and the Razorbacks will embark on a coaching search.
It took Arkansas less than a half an hour after the end of the game to dismiss Bielema, according to multiple reports—and it wasn’t hard to see why. The game, which was mostly messy, came down to the final five minutes, when Arkansas kicked a field goal to tie the score at 45 and Missouri ran down the clock as it marched downfield. The Tigers—becoming the first team to start SEC play 0-4 and finish 4-4—managed the clock well, and Bielema (in a move that’s best described as baffling) declined a holding penalty against Missouri with less than two minutes left—choosing time over pushing the Tigers back. In the end, his team got five seconds after a Missouri field goal in which it fielded a squib kick and threw an incomplete pass before losing, 48-45.
Neither team put together much in the way of defense. Missouri’s secondary struggled throughout the game, giving up big play after big play to Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen, who threw for 313 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. After five-straight wins in which its defense looked more like units of years past, Missouri was up to its early-season tricks against the Razorbacks; the Tigers had allowed opponents an average of 16.6 points over the past five weeks after giving up an average of 42.2 over the season’s first six games.
Missouri’s Drew Lock finished the day with five touchdowns, en route to an SEC-record 43 on the year, and he passed for 448 yards while completing 59.5% of his passes. Lock was inaccurate early, and the Tigers’ receivers struggled with drops for much of the first half. Still, the Tigers were able to edge out Arkansas in large part thanks to a highlight-reel 24-yard catch by J’Mon Moore with 8:14 remaining in the game.
Going into Saturday, Arkansas was 4-7, with three of its wins coming against the likes of Florida A&M, New Mexico State and Coastal Carolina. That is to say: The Razorbacks before Saturday had exactly one marginally meaningful win, over Ole Miss on Oct. 28. With the loss to Missouri, Bielema’s regular-season record at Arkansas dipped to 29-34 over the past five seasons, although he went 2-1 in bowl games. Still, 2017 marked a noticeable downturn in Fayetteville; after a three-win season in 2013, Bielema’s teams had won seven, eight and then seven games in his next three years at the helm of the Razorbacks. It was hardly the five-year stretch the coach must have imagined when he left Wisconsin, citing better odds at winning a national title in Fayetteville than in Madison.
Under Bielema, the Razorbacks never made it out of the middle of the pack in the SEC, and with just one conference win in 2017, the team was in dire need of a change. Sure, Arkansas dealt with a rash of injuries this season, but no matter the attrition, it didn’t play up to expectations under Bielema this year—or in recent ones.