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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Bret Bielema only has to go back to last year's nine-game losing streak to recall what it's like to watch a season slip away from him at Arkansas.
The second-year Razorbacks coach hopes to end any similarities to last year's nightmare when struggling Arkansas — loser of three straight games against top 10 teams — hosts Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday.
What started as a promising bounce-back season for the Razorbacks (3-4) has turned sour in recent weeks, with losses to Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia testing fans' patience and threatening to undo the good will Bielema earned after dominating wins over Texas Tech and Northern Illinois.
Last week's defeat to the Bulldogs, a game in which Arkansas trailed 38-6 at halftime, was the first uninspired performance of the season for the Razorbacks — following a pair of narrow defeats in which the Aggies and Crimson Tide rallied in the fourth quarter.
Arkansas lost its final nine games last season on its way to missing a bowl game for the second straight year, a scenario Bielema is intent on not repeating this season. If the Razorbacks are to keep their faint bowl hopes alive, particularly with three ranked opponents still remaining, they almost must snap out of their losing ways this weekend against the Blazers (4-3).
"I know this, our guys will respect the game this weekend because they see it on film," Bielema said. "But more importantly, I think they respect themselves enough to know we've only got, obviously, five guaranteed opportunities left. And I don't want that to be the end of it."
Alabama-Birmingham is no stranger to facing a Southeastern Conference opponent this season, having lost 47-34 at Mississippi State on Sept. 6.
Even the Bulldogs, however, didn't present as physical of a challenge on the offensive line in the eyes of first-year Blazers coach Bill Clark. Led by 6-foot-10 left tackle Dan Skipper, the Razorbacks average 328.4 pounds per player up front.
"Arkansas has the biggest line that we have seen all season, and that is including Mississippi State," Clark said. "I have never seen a 6-foot-10 offensive lineman, but they are just massive humans."
Other factors to watch on Saturday as Arkansas tries to snap its three-game losing streak:
CLEMENTS' STATUS: The Blazers have been one of the better stories in Conference USA this season — already having won four games a year after finishing 2-10 under former coach Garrick McGee. Starting quarterback Cody Clements, who leads Conference USA in completion percentage (69.5) has been a key reason for the turnaround, but the junior's status is uncertain after he was banged up in a loss to Middle Tennessee. If Clements is unable to play, freshman Jeremiah Briscoe is expected to start under center.
MENTAL WEAR: Arkansas appears on the brink of missing a bowl game for the third straight year. The Razorbacks lost their 16th-straight SEC game last week, dating to 2012, and a convincing win in nonconference action this week is exactly what they need heading into four conference games to end the season.
"Mentally, it's disappointing, what we've done," Arkansas right tackle Brey Cook said. "This week is a great opportunity to get back on track."
RUNNING RETURN: The Razorbacks led the SEC in rushing offense for most of the season, but they struggled to establish the running game in losses to Alabama and Georgia and are now fourth in the league with an average of 256.9 yards per game on the ground. Sophomore Alex Collins has struggled in recent weeks — gaining a combined 43 yards on 17 carries in the last two games — and Arkansas will once again be without the suspended Korliss Marshall at running back. Bielema is counting on junior Jonathan Williams, who leads Arkansas with 677 yards rushing.
RETURN OF ELLIS: Starting middle linebacker Brooks Ellis missed last week's loss to Georgia with a bone bruise on his knee, but Bielema said the sophomore's chances of returning on Saturday are "very good." Ellis is second on Arkansas with 39 tackles.
KICKING TURNOVER: Arkansas has struggled to find a consistent replacement for graduated kicker Zach Hocker this season, and Bielema said this week that senior John Henson — who missed his second extra-point attempt in as many games last week — is likely to be replaced by sophomore Adam McFain.