Little more than bragging rights on the recruiting trail will be at stake on Saturday when the Ole Miss Rebels (4–2, 0–2 in the SEC) head three-and-a-half hours northwest to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks (1–5, 0–3) in Little Rock. The winner gets the dubious honor of getting out of the SEC West cellar.
When the Rebels have taken the field against unranked teams this season, they have looked like world beaters, scoring an average of 58 points per game. When called onto the field to play conference foes, the Rebels’ offense has wilted under the pressure tallying 23 total points in games against No. 1 Alabama and then-No. 5 LSU. Ole Miss heads to Arkansas on a high note after getting a confidence-boosting 70–21 win last week against Louisiana-Monroe while rolling up 826 yards of total offense.
Since the second half of the non-conference road loss against Colorado State (34–27) in Week 2, just about everything that could go wrong for Arkansas on the field has gone wrong. Sloppy play on special teams, multiple untimely turnovers, and confusion on offense have the Hogs mired in the middle of a five-game losing streak. But there have been signs of improvement on offense in back-to-back losses against Texas A&M and Alabama; can that improvement continue against the Rebels enough for a win?
Ole Miss vs. Arkansas (Little Rock, Ark.)
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: War Memorial Stadium (Little Rock, Ark.)
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Ole Miss -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Arkansas’ improving offense
Statistically, Arkansas is one of the worst in the nation at moving the ball, ranked 102nd out of 129 FBS programs and averaging 359 total yards per game. But before Ole Miss fans start dismissing the Hogs’ offense, Arkansas picked up 405 total yards of offense against Alabama last week, while the Rebels were held to 248 total yards against the same opponent.
The Razorbacks turned the ball over three times against the Crimson Tide, fumbling twice and throwing one interception, but they are finally moving the ball behind running back Rakeem Boyd and quarterback Ty Storey. The Rebels are porous at best on defense, ranked 123rd in the nation giving up 504 yards per game.
2. Jordan Ta’amu vs. Arkansas' pass defense
When senior quarterback Jordan Ta’amu is on, he is one of the best in the nation. As a team, the Rebels have the fifth best aerial attack in the country throwing for 348 yards per game. The hole in Arkansas’ defense resides in the secondary, which is good news for Ole Miss. While Arkansas is strong against the run, they cannot stop opposing passing attacks giving way for an average of 271 yards each time out.
Arkansas’ secondary will have trouble slowing down Mississippi receivers A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, and DaMarkus Lodge, if possible.
3. Getting off the field
If quick strike one- or two-play drives are not on display, which defense will be able to get off the field giving their offense a chance to score? Of the two, Arkansas is better at shutting down the opposition on third down with a 33 percent conversion rate. Ole Miss is far friendlier allowing a conversion 41 percent of the time.
If the Razorbacks are to sustain drives and keep the Rebels off the field, they will have to commit to the run, something first-year offensive coordinator Joe Craddock has yet to accept. Boyd rushed for 102 yards off 15 carries against Alabama but the emphasis has been on the passing game where Storey threw 39 times for 230 yards. Teams have averaged 196 yards per game on the ground against Ole Miss.
Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke and Arkansas head coach Chad Morris both need this win. Mississippi has no “easy wins” left on the schedule to get to the bowl berth plateau of six victories staring down Auburn, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State. Mathematically, Arkansas can still make a bowl game but it seems unlikely. If Morris can pull off the win, Arkansas might stay out of the cellar in 2018 while giving the team a morale boosting conference victory.
If Arkansas cannot put pressure on Ta’amu and move him off his spot, this will be a long game for the Hogs. If the Razorbacks can force some errant passes and control the game by running the ball, Arkansas should get its fifth consecutive win in the series over Ole Miss, but that comes back to play-calling.
Prediction: Ole Miss 38, Arkansas 34
— 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.