Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Arkansas head football Bret Bielema summed up last Saturday’s 63-28 victory over Tennessee-Martin and his optimistic viewpoint of the program during his post-game press conference.
“It’s not where we want to be,” Bielema said of the Hogs’ 4-4 record and his program in general, “but it’s definitely getting more and more like I want it to be.”
With a third of their regular-season games left to play, just exactly where Arkansas’ program stands will be defined over the next month. The Razorbacks could finish the regular season as poorly as 4-8 or as well as 8-4, and I think one is just about as likely as the other. However, it seems the Hogs will land somewhere in between.
The Razorbacks travel to Oxford, Miss this week for a 2:30 p.m. showdown with No. 19 Ole Miss that will be televised by CBS. The Hogs turn around next week for a trip to Baton Rouge, La., to face No. 4 LSU on Nov. 14.
Arkansas then returns home to the friendly confines of Reynolds Razorback Stadium to play host to No. 25 Mississippi State on Nov. 21 and Missouri on Nov. 27.
It would not be unfair to say the Razorbacks’ season has been a disappointment up to this point, and no matter what happens the rest of the way, the Hogs’ losses to Toledo and Texas Tech will forever be considered missed opportunities. However, the Razorbacks could garner a measure of redemption over the next month.
Should the Razorbacks run the table this month, an 8-4 record overall and a 6-2 mark the in the SEC would look impressive all things considered. Considering the Hogs were 1-3 going into October, 7-5 overall and a 5-3 SEC mark would be considered very good and a sign that the program had improved since last season.
Two Razorbacks victories this month would add up to a 6-6 overall record and a 4-4-4 in league play. While it would be a repeat of last year’s record, it would still be a step up with two more conference victories than the previous year. It would not be the progress Hog fans were dreaming of in the summer, but it would be considered a step forward in what is still deemed to be the toughest division in college football.
I don’t want to consider anything less than a 6-6 season. Waiting for college football from the close of the bowl games in January until September is difficult enough for a college football junkie like me. None of us need the extra drama or perhaps even apathy that would ensue in the face of a losing season.
If the Hogs can remain healthy at key spots, I believe Arkansas has a good chance of being at least 6-6. The SEC schedule makers weren’t kind to the Razorbacks this season by any means in making them the only SEC team to face back-to-back road trips twice in the season, but back-to-back home games to close out the season isn’t a bad thing.
On to Oxford
The Razorbacks are 11-point underdogs going into their game with the Hugh Freeze’s Rebels (7-2, 4-1). The spread seems a bit high to me, but then again the Razorbacks did give up 380 passing yards to UT-Martin, a team Ole Miss throttled 76-3 in the opening game of the season.
Comparing scores in football is a fruitless escapade, but I do expect a high scoring affair down in Oxford, and if the Razorbacks take care of the football against the Rebels’ opportunistic defense, I expect the Hogs to be in the ballgame. While the Rebels do have one of the more potent defenses in the country, Arkansas’ inside running game is the way to attack Ole Miss’ speed.
The return of wide receiver Jared Cornelius from his broken arm and the emergence of wide receiver Dominique Reed as a deep threat give the Razorbacks the chance to get one-on-on coverage or force the Rebels to move their safeties out of the box, which should only help the Hogs’ running game.
Defensively the Hogs do have their work cut out for them. Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell is the best receiver in the SEC and may be the league’s second best player next to LSU running back Leonard Fournette. Treadwell has made 61 catches this season for 870 yards and 6 touchdowns. At 6-3, 216-pounds and sub 4.4 speed, he’s a nightmare for anyone to cover.
Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly has completed 213 of 327 passes with 12 interceptions and 20 touchdowns. After viewing Arkansas game footage from last Saturday, he’s going to be licking his chops. UT-Martin took advantage of Arkansas’ linebackers and freshman cornerback Ryan Pulley, who played in place of regular starting corner D.J. Dean.
Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith sets the defense to funnel the action toward the middle of the field, but needs better execution to make sure the Hogs aren’t eaten inside out with chunk pass plays.
Offensively the Hogs will want to play keep-away from the Rebels, and they will have to continue to be as opportunistic in the red zone as they have been in the last two games against Auburn and UT-Martin.
As much as the Hogs have to play for in the game, the Rebels have even more. Despite their two losses, Ole Miss is in the thick of the hunt for the SEC Western Division title with Alabama and LSU. A win over Arkansas keeps them in the Western Division race at least until they host LSU at Oxford on Nov. 21, no matter what happens between the Tigers and Crimson Tide on Saturday at Tuscaloosa.
Ole Miss has never played in the SEC Championship Game, but at this point in the season, the Rebels, whose lone SEC loss was 38-10 to Florida, still control their own destiny.
No doubt the Hogs would like to drop kick the Rebels’ hopes through the field goal of life, but it will not be easy. The Hogs will have to play their best game of the season to have a chance.