Razorbacks, Rebels battle for continued respect

Some football games are characterized but what teams have to gain, while others turn more on what they have to lose.

This week’s clash between SEC Western Division opponents No. 22 Arkansas and No. 12 Ole Miss at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium falls in the latter category. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. Saturday, and the game will be televised by ESPN.

The Rebels (3-2, 1-1) are the highest-rated two-loss football team in the nation, while the Razorbacks (4-2, 0-2) remained in the poll by the hair of their chinny chin chin after blowout home loss to Alabama last Saturday.

Ole Miss opened the season with a 45-34 loss to No. 14 Florida State in a game that saw Seminoles rally back from a three-touchdown deficit for the victory. Two weeks later, the Rebels jumped ahead of No. 1 Alabama, only to see the Crimson Tide eek out a 48-43 victory. Since then Hugh Freeze’s Rebels have righted their ship, plastering Georgia, 45-14, and whipping Memphis, 48-28, before last week’s open date.

The Razorbacks jumped into the Top 25, thanks to a 41-38 double overtime victory over then-ranked TCU on the season’s second playing date, but the Razorbacms have lost back-to-back SEC games to No. 6 Texas A&M, 45-24, and No. 1 Alabama, 49-30.

Should the Hogs lose Saturday, Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks will surely fade from the national spotlight the Top 25 supplies. Ole Miss might retain a spot in the Top 25 with a close loss to Arkansas, but then again the Rebels might not. Worse than falling out of the national rankings, an Ole Miss loss would all but mathematically eliminate the Rebels from the Western Division race.

The team that wins Saturday will get a midseason confidence boost, while the fans of the losing team will fall somewhere on spectrum between irate and seriously disappointed. While both teams will have a lot of football left to play following this game, the losing coaching staff will have a motivational chore ahead of it with high expectations dashed on the craggy surface that is life in the SEC West.

The Rebels are a 6.5-point favorite, and the common thought is that Ole Miss is better than their record. Despite having the cloud of an NCAA investigation hanging over the program, Freeze has the Rebels holding on to the rope, but how long can that grip remain sure if Ole Miss continues to collect losses.

The Razorbacks are somewhat of a mystery team, still getting respect nationally despite double-digit losses to Alabama and Texas A&M, but fans are grousing about poor defensive play for the second season in a row and a running game that stalled in both conference games.

The Razorbacks have won the last two games in the series against two of the better Rebels teams in recent history. Arkansas ambushed Ole Miss, 30-0, in 2014, and The Hogs won, 53-52, in overtime last season, thanks to one of the most unlikely plays in the histories of both programs.

Facing a fourth-and-25, Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen completed a pass to tight end Hunter Henry, who lateraled the ball behind him nearly 20 yards to Alex Collins, who picked the ball up after one bounce and them motored around the left end for the first down. Two plays later, the Hogs scored the winning touchdown.

Chances are the game will be high scoring again. The Hogs are averaging 35 points per game, while Ole Miss is scoring at a 41.6 ppg. clip. Ole Miss gives up 29.0 ppg., while Arkansas yields 26 ppg.

The Rebels’ offense average 491.4 yards per game, including 158.0 on the ground and 333.4 passing. Ole Miss senior quarterback Chad Kelly is regarded as the SEC’s top quarterback, perhaps even the best in the nation. He has completed 115 of 174 passes (66.1 percent) for 1,596 yards, 13 touchdowns and 4 interceptions so far this season. Kelly also has 38 carries for 124 yards rushing and a touchdown.

“He’s definitely a running threat,” Arkansas defensive backfield coach Paul Rhoads said. “He’s a running threat in both scheme and then in ad libbing. The quarterback is very capable of putting out a 100-yard rushing game.”

Senior tight end Evan Engram leads Ole Miss with 30 catches for 479 yards and 4 touchdowns through five games this season. Van Jefferson has 21 catches for 244 yards and a touchdown, while Damore’ea Stringfellow has 20 catches for 305 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Arkansas’ defense has struggled against SEC competition giving up a host of big plays to A&M and Alabama. Poor tackling and alignment has been a factor, but Arkansas’ scheme came under question by Bielema following the Alabama game. The Hogs will be without starting linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who is out for a month to six weeks with a foot injury. Dwayne Eugene, De’Jon Harris and Khalia Hackett will play in his stead.

“We’ve got to put it all together and put ourselves in position to have success,” Bielema said. “We’ll have a live crowd here in our home stadium. They’ll definitely have wrinkles. Hugh and his staff are very creative. As coaches, you always look at the matches you have, offense and defense, and he has a lot of matchup issues. Their receivers are very tall, very lanky. At times this year we’ve had problems defending the run game.”

Though Arkansas has not boasted the powerful running game that Bielema built his reputation on as head coach at Wisconsin and in previous seasons at Arkansas, the Hogs might have an advantage in the running game. Ole Miss gives up a league worst 215 yards rushing per game.

“They’ve played two great teams like we have,” said running back Rawleigh Williams, who is third in the SEC in rushing. “We don’t take that for granted at all. They’re an SEC defense, and they have a lot of guys who are SEC-caliber players. We have to go out there and play our game. We have to prove ourselves.”

Arkansas offensive line coach Kurt Anderson said the Razorbacks have their work cut out for them regardless of what Ole Miss’ statistics say.

“We’ve got to play with pad level and play physical,” Anderson said. “They’ve got linebackers that can run; they’ve got safeties that can run. They’re a very good defense. I think they’re kind of trying to find their way a little bit in terms of what their true identity is, but they’ve had a bye week where they can figure things out.
“This is a team that obviously plays very well in big games. I think they’ll see this one as a very big game, as do we.”

Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen has been impressed with what he has seen of the Rebels on tape.

“They’ve got some playmakers on defense,” Allen said. “They’re a little young, but they’ve got some guys that can play really good football. They do some different stuff just like every week with teams in the SEC. We’ve got to get ready for them and hone in on the game plan that Coach [Dan] Enos [Arkansas offensive coordinator] has for us.”

If the Razorbacks can mount a better running game, it will not only help the Razorbacks control the clock and keep Ole Miss’ offense on the sideline, but also slow down the Rebels’ pass rush. Allen passed for 400 yards and three touchdowns against Alabama, but he also was sacked six times, threw three interceptions — one returned 100 yards for a touchdown down — and fumbled while scrambling that was returned for another touchdown.

If Allen can rely on Arkansas’ rushing attack for support, he will likely play more efficiently if not more productively.

As porous as the Razorbacks’ defense has been this season, it’s hard for me to predict a Razorback victory.

Prediction: Ole Miss 42, Arkansas 34