Important conference showdowns do not typically go down in Week 2 of the college football season, but the meeting between the Arkansas Razorbacks (1-0) and Ole Miss Rebels (0-1) on Saturday is crucial for both programs. The Razorbacks are coming off a challenging 2-10 (0-8 SEC) season under Chad Morris seeking to build momentum in Year 2 under the former SMU head coach. On the other sidelines, the Rebels slugged through a 5-7 (1-7) campaign a year ago with their lone conference victory coming on the road against the Hogs (37-33). The winner of this contest takes that next step forward in building up a program with proud histories while staying out of the dreaded conference cellar.
Headlines do not always tell the tale, and the performance Arkansas put in against Portland State may be misleading based on the final score alone. The Hogs topped the Vikings 20-13, a margin of victory not acceptable to many going against an FCS foe, but the Razorbacks dominated the game statistically. The Hogs rolled for 204 yards on the ground and balanced out the offense with 217 passing while holding the visiting team to 230 total yards. Arkansas was fine until they got to third down, only converting 5 of 15 opportunities, but managed to move the chains on two fourth-down tries.
The Rebels weren't as fortunate in their opener. The Memphis Tigers jumped on Ole Miss early, taking a 13-0 score into halftime. The Rebels finally put points on the board late in the third quarter off a 35-yard Luke Logan field goal and added the first touchdown of the season early in the fourth on a one-yard Scottie Phillips run. But the comeback fell short, as Ole Miss fell 15-10 in the Liberty Bowl. The Tigers dominated the game, finishing with 364 total yards to the Rebels' 173.
With two offenses still trying to find traction, which defense can get the needed stops to produce a conference victory on Saturday?
Arkansas at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Ole Miss -6.5
When Arkansas Has the Ball
The Razorbacks' offense is centered upon returning leading rusher Rakeem Boyd. Boyd paced the Hogs with 734 yards and two touchdowns last season, and started out with 114 yards and a score on 18 carries last week against Portland State. Arkansas is deep in the backfield, able to trot out Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden to spell Boyd as needed. The Hogs ran over Ole Miss' Landshark defense last season to the tune of 300 yards, averaging. 6.2 yards per carry. If Boyd can get another 100-yard performance against the Rebels like last season, that is a good sign for an Arkansas victory.
One thing that was obvious for Arkansas a year ago was the total confusion on offense in Morris' complex system between the quarterbacks and receivers. Over the offseason, a big portion of that was supposed to be fixed when Morris brought on grad transfer Ben Hicks. With Hicks throwing the rock around in Morris' system at SMU, he threw for a career-high 3,569 yards with 33 touchdowns in 2017. There was nothing clean about the Hogs' passing game on Saturday, seeing Hicks complete just 14 of 29 attempts for 143 yards, granted there were a lot of drops. Backup Nick Starkel (graduate transfer from Texas A&M) never got a chance to get going, hitting 4-of-5 passes for 48 yards and threw the team's only interception. Will there be a better sense of cohesion against the Rebels defense this week? No excuses, Morris now has "his" guy who knows the system.
As the stats go, Ole Miss showed night and day improvement on defense under new coordinator Mike MacIntyre in the opener. The Landshark defense was porous at best in 2018, allowing an average of 483 yards per game. The turnaround against Memphis (364 yards) is heaven-sent for Ole Miss fans. The Rebels have a veteran group making up the core of their front seven which should be a challenge for a youthful Arkansas offensive line that returns just two starters.
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
Logical Ole Miss fans had to expect a drop-off in offensive production this season with the loss of quarterback Jordan Ta'amu and receivers A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, and DaMarkus Lodge to the NFL. But the fall from 511 yards per game to only 173 in a non-conference game against Memphis is frightening. The Rebels only had three starters back on offense and are down one of them, right tackle Alex Givens (back), for an unknown amount of time. If new offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez has any magic in his playbook, best to bust it out against Arkansas.
Making the transition from the high school level to college ball is not easy. Mississippi's field general, freshman Matt Corral, received valuable playing time last season, completing 16 of 22 passes for 239 yards with two scores and one pick, but not enough so he had to forfeit his redshirt. But his start against Memphis was part of the ongoing learning curve, as he went 9-for-19 for 93 yards and an interception. He also took three sacks. Expect Arkansas to harass Corral as much as possible, trying to force errant passes into coverage when possible.
Until Corral shows he can keep defenses honest, the box will be stacked against senior tailback Scottie Phillips. No matter how strong and/or well-conditioned, how much of a pounding can Phillips (5-8, 211) take being the focal point of the offense? If Arkansas can stop Phillips, they can win the game.
With one combined conference win last season between the two teams, college football fans may pass on this game, but the outcome of this meeting is important for the respective fan bases. There is only so long head coaches can preach about building a winner and changing the culture of a program before results on the field bypass the words up in the stands. This might be the best shot for both teams to notch a conference victory, so expect a high-intensity game. The Hogs look a little more put together and should be able to make enough plays to leave Oxford with a rare road win.
Prediction: Arkansas 24, Ole Miss 17
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.