Summer talk offers few clues for Hogs’ early showdown with Ole Miss

This Razorback football preseason reminds me a bit of the one prior to the Hogs’ 1998 season in one very specific way.

Back in 1998, all Razorbacks fans had the second playing date of the season circled. Everyone was wondering if the Hogs could beat SMU. The three previous seasons, Arkansas had lost in embarrassing fashion to the Mustangs early in the season. So it was a legitimate question, and an early litmus test for Houston Nutt in his first season as the Head Hog.

Arkansas fans should have worried more about Tennessee and Mississippi State. The 1998 Razorbacks not only trounced SMU, 44-17, but also won their first eight games of the season before losing back-to-back games to the Vols and Bulldogs.

This summer Arkansas fans are once again concerned with the second-playing date of the season, with many fans and media members alike seeing it as THE pivotal game for the Razorbacks in their second year under head coach Chad Morris.

If the Razorbacks are able to beat the Rebels in Oxford, Miss. on Sept. 7, it will be a boost for Arkansas’ chances of going to a bowl bid and possibly having a winning season for the first time since the 2016 season.

That’s high stakes for a game played in September, but with ESPN calling the shots on scheduling, nearly every Power 5 team will be playing a key game within the first two weeks of the season.

That said there is no comparison between Arkansas playing SMU and the Hogs tangling with Ole Miss.

Like Arkansas, the Rebels struggled last year and are expected to struggle this year, too, but at their worst, the Rebels are more capable and have a better program than SMU.

The game itself ought to be good. Last year’s game went down to the final drive when the Rebels topped the Razorbacks, 37-33, at War Memorial Stadium. In-game injuries to quarterback Ty Storey, and running backs Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley, along with a decision to punt instead of go for a fourth-and-short late in the game, set the table for a Rebel victory.

This year both squads will be working with new starting quarterbacks and young receivers. Both return solid running backs, but face struggles with their offensive front.

Both teams struggled on defense last year, and that likely will be the case again in the high-powered SEC as inexperienced performers will be counted on at all three levels of both defenses.

Ole Miss will likely be favored in the game, but the difference in the point spread will have more to do with the fact the game is in Oxford rather than the Rebels’ actual superiority over the Razorbacks. On a neutral field, it would be a pick ’em game.

Beyond the fact that fans are antsy about Ole Miss like they were SMU in 1998, there aren’t a lot of similarities.

Though we didn’t know it at the time, Nutt’s Hogs would benefit from a senior-laden offensive line, led by All-American Brandon Burlsworth. They had paid their dues as underclassmen starters in the SEC, and they were tired of being knocked in the dirt. That front played a mean and nasty season. Arguably, the Razorbacks have not had a better offensive line since.

Madre Hill also returned from a two-year knee injury, and had an excellent season running behind that line. Junior quarterback Clint Stoerner came into his own, and receiver Anthony Lucas kept defenses honest with his speed and hands.

Arkansas’ defense had a resurgence with an aggressive, veteran squad that was hungry to win. Defensive co-coordinator Keith Burns brought a brash attitude with him, and his Code Red defense usually backed up their talk.

It was truly a memorable season — the best since 1989 — with the Hogs going 9-3 and taking a co-share of the SEC Western Division title.

Unfortunately, Bret Bielema didn’t leave Arkansas’ cupboard stocked with hungry players for Morris like Danny Ford did for Nutt back in 1998.

Arkansas might have a good offensive line this season, but it’s not going to perform like that veteran line from 1998 that also included stalwarts like four-year starter Russ Brown and three-year starter Grant Garrett, especially in the second game of the season.

Arkansas offensive line coach Dustin Fry may have the toughest chore among the offensive assistants in guiding a young group to be up to snuff in the SEC. He did not get the job done last year with three veterans, who are getting a shot in the NFL this preseason. We’ll just have to wait to see how he manages this year.

Wide receivers coach Justin Stepp has a bundle of talent at receiver, but it is green. Even the returning players are relatively inexperienced. There’s not a proven college playmaker in the bunch.

Devwah Whaley, Rakeem Boyd, Chase Hayden, and T.J. Hammonds gives Arkansas a backfield with potential, but not one of them have proven they could carry Madre Hill’s water bottle. Not yet, anyway.

That said I think Arkansas’ offense will be greatly improved this season. I just don’t know if it will have had time to get into a groove by the second week of the season.

Defensively, Arkansas has been challenged by a lack speed and depth since it began playing in the SEC back in 1992. Arkansas has had some solid and several very good defenses over the years, but no truly dominate defenses in the SEC. Really, you have to reach back to the Holtz and Broyles eras to find truly dominate Razorback defenses.

The issue hasn’t been with the coaching or the player’s effort. It boils down to a lack of talent in comparison to the elite teams in the league.

The Razorbacks do have talent this season. Linebacker De’Jon “Scoota” Harris and defensive tackle McTelvin “Sosa” Agim — who will join Morris and Whaley at SEC Media Days next Wednesday — have All-SEC-type ability, but other SEC squads just have more. I’m not sure Ole Miss is one of them, but we’ll see.

So, what’s going to happen when the Hogs go to Oxford on Sept. 7?

I haven’t got a clue.

I think Arkansas should be improved on defense in the second year under defensive coordinator John Chavis, how much is impossible to know at this point.

With offense being Morris’ specialty, the Hogs ought to be quite a bit better when all is said and done. However, the second game is early for such an inexperienced offensive line to gel. The trouble with predicting the game is that Ole Miss is also a mystery.

I’m expecting it to be a good game, and maybe even a telling game, but all we really know is that the winner will have a leg up on not finishing in last place in the SEC West.