Razorbacks, Rebels battle for pole position in tough SEC West

There might not be a “D” in Ole Miss, but there is a great big “O.”

The Rebels (1-2) have been down right offensive – in the best of ways — in Lane Kiffin’s first three games as head coach with Ole Miss leading the SEC in scads of offensive categories going into Saturday’s 2:30 p.m., SEC Network-televised contest with the Arkansas Razorbacks (1-2) at Reynold’s Razorback Stadium.

However, the Rebels’ defense lands on the opposite end of the spectrum, ranked last in the SEC and the nation in defense, setting up interesting challenges and opportunities for first-year coach Sam Pittman and his Hogs, who have played the bulk of their last two games without their best running back Rakeem Boyd and their most talented receiver Treylon Burks.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Ole Miss
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17
Where: Fayetteville, AR
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Oct. 31 – at Texas A&M
Nov. 7 – Tennessee
Nov. 14 – at Florida
Nov. 21 – LSU
Nov. 28 – at Missouri
Dec. 5 – Alabama

Pittman said that tight end Hudson Henry, Boyd and Burks will be back on the field Saturday, which should make the Razorbacks’ offense even more potent with the emergence of Trelon Smith (41 carries for 167 yards and 14 receptions for 113 yards) and De’Vion Warren (10 reception 223 yards and 3 TDs) in their stead. However, the Razorbacks are reportedly beat up on defense particularly at linebacker, which does not bode well against the nation’s most prolific offense. Pittman said Montaric “Busta” Brown could also be ready to play to bolster the secondary.

The Rebels lead not only the SEC but also the nation in total offense going into Saturday’s contest, averaging a whopping 573 yards per game in a 51-35 loss to Florida, a 42-41 overtime win over Kentucky, and a 63-48 loss to Alabama last week. Ole Miss averages 192.3 yards rushing and 380.7 passing, and the Rebels are averaging 40 points a game. By contrast, the Hogs have scored just 59 points the entire season.

Pittman can feel the heat generated by the Rebels’ offense even from the hills of Northwest Arkansas.

“What’s the best word for highest amount of pressure possible?” Pittman said earlier this week. “What is that in the dictionary? Because that’s what it is. We better score. Our offense better come to play, because their offense is unbelievably good. I mean, it just is. So does it add extra? Yeah it does.”

Arkansas’ offensive production has steadily improved through three games, looking particularly good last week through the middle portion of the Razorbacks’ controversial 30-28 loss at Auburn.

Wind, rain, and malfunctions in the kicking game — a blocked punt for an Auburn touchdown — put the Hogs behind an Auburn eight ball at 17-0 in the second quarter, but the Razorbacks gamely battled back behind the leadership of graduate-transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks, who completed 22 of 30 passes against the Tigers for 380 yards and four touchdowns to give the Hogs a 28-27 lead, going into the final two minutes of the game.

Though the Hogs showed a great deal of improvement at Auburn before the Tigers — with a good deal of help from the Zebras — notched the win, one wonders if the Razorbacks have advanced enough in Kendal Briles’ offense to keep pace with the Rebels, who have basically played in three shootouts in a row?

Pittman said Razorback defensive coordinator Barry Odom has a great plan for the Rebels, but the balanced nature of Ole Miss’ offensive attack appears troublesome.

Ole Miss sophomore quarterback Matt Corral leads the nation in total offense, averaging 407 yards per game. He has completed 67 of 88 passes (76.1 percent) for 1,080 yards and 9 touchdowns with 1 interception, and rushed 39 times for 141 yards.

Corral presents a duel threat that the Razorbacks have not had to deal with through three games this season.

“He’s played lights-out, which is difficult,” Kiffin said. “I don’t know many people would’ve expected that having no spring and in a quarterback competition. This is all new for him.”

Tight end Kenny Yeboah has developed into a threat with 5 catches for 355 yards and 4 touchdowns, but wide receiver Elijah Moore is Corral’s favorite receiver with 31 catches for 462 yards. He’s the nation’s leading receiver.

The Rebels are a big-play machine with eight plays that have gone for more than 40 yards this year.

A pair of sophomore running backs are fueling the ground game for the Rebels. Jerrion Ealy has 45 carries for 243 yards and 4 touchdowns. He rushed 19 times for 122 yards and 2 TDs against Alabama last week. His backup Snoop Connor also rambled for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns on 21 carries against the Crimson Tide.

Though the Lane Train is chugging on all cylinders on offense, the Rebels’ defense is last in the nation statistically, surrendering 641.3 yards per game and allowing 51.7 points per contest.

That sets up an interesting opportunity for Franks and a Razorback offense that has looked incrementally better each week operating in Briles’ offense, which is very similar in concept to Kiffin’s, particularly in the running game.

Briles served as Kiffin’s offensive coordinator in 2017 at Florida Atlantic before moving on to Houston in 2018 and Florida State in 2019. Adding another connection, Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and Briles are lifelong friends and brothers-in-law by way of Lebby’s marriage to Kendal’s sister Staley. No doubt there will be some family pride on the line this week.

The big question for the Razorbacks is if Odom’s banged-up defense can slow down the Rebels’ offense enough for the Hogs to keep up?

That’s something we have no way of knowing until kickoff rolls around on Saturday.

Kiffin said the Rebels were facing a bit of a Covid-19 crisis on Wednesday, although he would not mention the names of players who had been placed in quarantine.

SEC games between Florida and LSU and Missouri and Vanderbilt originally scheduled for Saturday have been postponed until Dec. 12 because of Covid-19 quarantine issues. SEC recommendations call for at least 53 scholarship players to be available for a team to play.

Alabama’s Nick Saban reportedly became the first SEC head coach to test positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday. SEC squads are all tested for the virus at least three times a week.

Though originally scheduled to be televised by ESPN2, the Ole Miss-Arkansas game will be broadcast by the SEC Network, the league amended Wednesday.