When the Arkansas Razorbacks (2-5, 0-4) travel to Oxford on Saturday to face the Ole Miss Rebels (3-4, 1-3) the longtime foes have the dubious honor of battling for possession of the SEC West cellar. With key injuries to top players on both squads, neither team enters the game firing on all cylinders making this showdown a questionable outcome.
Tough losses are nothing new for Bret Bielema's Razorbacks this season but last week’s 52-20 defeat against Auburn at home was especially bitter. The Hogs’ offense could only muster 303 total yards while the defense coughed up 629 with the Tigers doing equal amounts of damage on the ground (345 yards) and through the air (284). Already without starting quarterback Austin Allen and leading returning wide receiver Jared Cornelius, Arkansas lost All-SEC center Frank Ragnow and leading rusher Chase Hayden to season-ending injuries each sustained last week.
The news from the Ole Miss sideline was not much better. For starters, the Rebels lost 40-24 at home to LSU, as Tigers tailback Derrius Guice posted a season-high 276 rushing yards. Ole Miss’ offense managed just 328 total yards, while the defense gave up 571, most of them coming on the ground (393 rushing yards). To add injury to insult for interim head coach Matt Luke, quarterback Shea Patterson, the SEC’s leading passer, injured his right knee in the second quarter. He returned to the game, but was clearly hurting and on Sunday it was announced that he had suffered a torn PCL and was out for the rest of the season.
Junior Jordan Ta’amu, a junior college transfer from New Mexico Military Institute, replaced Patterson and finished 7-of-11 passing for 78 yards to go along with 20 rushing yards on three attempts against LSU. He will run the Rebels’ offense in Patterson’s absence.
Arkansas at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28, 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Ole Miss -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jordan Ta’amu’s first start
Thanks to Shea Patterson’s efforts, Ole Miss is eighth in the FBS in passing offense at 334 yards per game. But with Patterson out for the rest of the season, it will be Ta’amu at the helm. The junior college transfer put up some big numbers at New Mexico Military Institute throwing for 3,014 yards with 32 touchdowns while rushing for 328 yards with seven more touchdowns last season. Ta’amu has plenty of targets to throw to, including All-SEC candidate A.J. Brown as well as DeMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf. Arkansas ranks 10th in the conference against the pass (231.1 ypg) and has given up twice as many touchdowns (11) as interceptions (5). Expect the Razorbacks to try and confuse Ta’amu with its coverage schemes while bringing pressure in hopes of rattling him and forcing him to make some mistakes.
2. Can Arkansas get back to its running ways?
Two things both squads were recently known for have fallen to the side. The Razorbacks cannot get consistent push on running plays and the Rebels’ “Land Shark” defense is not holding up for four quarters. Against Auburn, the Hogs tailbacks had their best showing in an SEC game since facing Texas A&M, finishing with 171 rushing yards on 42 carries (4.1 ypc) in the loss to Auburn. Arkansas is without leading rusher Chase Hayden, but still has capable ball carriers in Devwah Whaley and David Williams. Meanwhile, Ole Miss ranks 126th out of 129 FBS teams against the run, allowing 261 rushing yards per game. Even with Hayden and center Frank Ragnow, the Razorbacks’ best offensive linemen and one of the best in the country, sidelined, Arkansas has to find a way to run the ball effectively on the Rebels or else all is lost for the season.
3. Cole Kelley’s coming out party?
Following Austin Allen’s injury, Kelley took over and was immediately thrown into the fire. The redshirt freshman’s first-ever collegiate starts came against none other than Alabama and Auburn, the No. 1- and No. 14-ranked defenses in the entire country. As can be expected, Kelley’s numbers thus far (49-for-86, 549 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs) don’t jump off of the page, but Ole Miss could be just the matchup he needs to find his rhythm. While teams are doing most of their damage against the Rebels on the ground, Ole Miss is giving up 7.7 yards per pass attempt and 210 yards per game through the air. As long as Kelley’s receivers do their part, this could be a statement game for the Razorbacks’ freshman signal-caller.
When this game is finished, both teams could look like prolific offenses thanks to porous defenses. New Ole Miss starting quarterback Jordan Ta’amu has an opportunity to pick apart Arkansas’ defense with his arm and legs, while the Razorbacks could run for 300 yards if the offensive line shows up. If Cole Kelley gets hot in the pocket that could tip things towards the Razorbacks’ favor.
If ever there was a victory Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema needed, this is it. Can the coaching staff and players rally for a big road win?
Prediction: Arkansas 33, Ole Miss 28
— 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.