Most “big” games are played for championships or at least positioning for a championship.
That’s not the case with Saturday’s 6:30 p.m., SEC Network-televised meeting between Arkansas and Ole Miss at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss. The Razorbacks (1-0) and Rebels (0-1) appear nowhere near championship caliber in the Southeastern Conference or frankly in any other league.
Saturday’s battle or pillow fight as some have referred to it is for a chance to stay out of the Western Division cellar.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Ole Miss
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7
Where: Oxford, Miss.
TV: SEC Network
Sept. 14 – Colorado State
Sept. 21 – San Jose State
Sept. 28 – Texas A&M (AT&T Stadium in Arlington)
Oct. 12 – at Kentucky
Oct. 19 – Auburn
Oct. 26 – at Alabama
Nov. 2 – Mississippi State
Nov. 9 – Western Kentucky
Nov. 23 – at LSU
Nov. 29 – Missouri
But make no mistake, this Bottom of the Barrel Bowl is hugely important to the two programs that are struggling to keep their heads above water even if it is only the second game of the season.
It might be the only chance either has at winning a conference game, if there is not some vast improvement over their season-opening performances. The loser could have a difficult time winning six games to become bowl eligible.
Arkansas enters the game on an 11-game SEC losing streak. The Hogs haven’t won an SEC game since nudging Ole Miss, 38-37, in 2017 under previous coach Bret Bielema.
The Rebels aren’t quite as pitiful, but the only SEC game Ole Miss won last season was a 37-33, two-touchdown, fourth-quarter comeback over the hapless Hogs in Little Rock. It was the Razorbacks’ first loss to Ole Miss since 2013.
Ole Miss coach Matt Luke chuckled during his weekly press conference when he was asked whether the game qualified as a must-win contest after the Rebels’ unexpected 15-10 season-opening loss to Memphis. But seriously, this game isn’t a laughing matter.
While it is early in the season, many Rebel fans have been antsy with Luke since the interim was removed from his title three seasons ago. If the Rebels fall to 0-2, there might not be enough sun block in the entirety of the Magnolia State to deflect the heat that will be directed his way.
Similarly, the heat will be turned up on Morris should the Razorbacks lose to the Rebels for the second year in a row. Morris was hailed as an offensive mastermind when hired, but his team has failed to show any evidence of it, save for scoring 31 points against what amounted to Alabama’s junior varsity last year after the Crimson Tide put the game away in the first quarter.
Transfer quarterbacks Ben Hicks from SMU and Nick Starkel from Texas A&M were supposed the relieve Razorback fans from their suffering, but neither impressed in performances that were deemed only O.K. by Arkansas offensive coordinator Joe Craddock in Arkansas’ 20-13 victory over Portland State.
Certainly, all the Razorbacks’ offensive issues can’t be laid at the feet of two new quarterbacks. Arkansas’ young receivers created spacing issues for the passing game by cutting off routes instead of extending them, and Arkansas’ offensive line failed to finish blocks by moving on to the second level after their initial assignments.
Morris himself called Arkansas’ game plan against the Vikings intentionally vanilla on Monday. There’s nothing wrong with vanilla, but the Razorbacks’ performance Saturday tasted like that last gooey scoop from a carton of vanilla that got stuck in the back of the freezer with the lid half off. It was more sticky foam than quality cream.
As for the Razorbacks’ game plan for the Rebels, some hope that Morris and Craddock bring the whipped cream, cherries, chocolate syrup, bananas, and nuts to go along with the vanilla.
However, if the players have trouble executing a vanilla game plan against an FCS school, is it wise to complicate the game plan against the Rebels?
The Razorbacks shouldn’t try to get too fancy until they hit the Rebels with a large dip of running back Rakeem Boyd, who ran for 114 yards on 18 carries last week, and tallied 106 yards in the first quarter against the Rebels last year before injuring his tail bone.
The Razorbacks only put Portland State away when it leaned on the Vikings with Boyd. Devwah Whaley also ran well against the Rebels last year before being injured in the second half.
Memphis piled up 192 rushing yards on the Rebels last week and two rushing touchdowns. The Razorbacks would be wise to establish the run on the road and embrace their strength before attempting to unleash their passing attack with such a young receiving group with sophomore Michael Woods being the vet with freshmen Treylon Burks and Trey Knox filling out the starting trio. Having talented senior tight end C.J. O’Grady available this week should help. The Hogs’ leading receiver from last year missed the season opener with a knee injury.
Defensively, Ole Miss limited what is normally a high-scoring Memphis squad to just 10 points. That’s admittedly scary for a Razorback team that moved the ball well at times but made little mistakes here and there at all positions to limit them to just 20 points against Portland State.
The Razorbacks go from seeing an uncommon five-man front against the Vikings to the Rebels three-man front spearheaded by 6-1, 328-pound senior Benito Jones. He’s the type of SEC lineman that teams have to game-plan for. He is sure to test Arkansas’ struggling offensive line. Junior college guard Myron Cunningham looked confused at times against Portland State, and if senior guard Austin Capps can’t play because of his injured ankle the Razorbacks will add another freshman starter to its ranks with Ricky Stromberg (6-4, 266) to go with Burks and Knox.
Arkansas’ defense played well except for a number of penalties that gave Portland State to much help on their scoring drives and some issues with backside containment when Viking quarterback Davis Alexander scrambled. The latter has to be shorn up, but it should be a relatively easy fix to get lineman and linebackers to stay in their lanes and be disciplined in their pursuit of the quarterback.
Rebel quarterback Matt Corral is nimble, and he could frustrate the Razorbacks by getting out of the pocket like Alexander. Corral threw inefficiently in the loss to Memphis, completing just 8 of 19 passes for 92 yards with an interception. Rebel tailback Scottie Phillips gained just 62 yards on 19 carries.
Arkansas had six sacks and forced three interceptions, but injuries could stymie the Razorbacks along the defensive front. Dorian Gerald, who seemed primed for a big year, is out fo the season with a strained artery in his neck, Eric Gregory is dealing with a high ankle sprain, and Jamario Bell is questionable with a knee injury. Mataio Soli is set to start opposite senior Gabe Richardson, but the freshman has a broken bone in his right hand and will play with a soft cast.
Arkansas’ secondary and linebackers played well against Portland State, but it’s hard to know what type of workout they really got in the ballgame.
Since 2015, the Hogs and Rebels have played it close. Arkansas has slightly outscored Ole Miss 158-156 in those four games. The average margin of victory during that period has been just 2.5 points, and two of the four games have been decided by a single point with one going into overtime.
It’s hard for me to imagine Saturday’s game not following a similar pattern. Ole Miss is a 6.5-point favorite, but the game looks like a toss-up to me.
However, I’ll pick a 27-24 Arkansas victory to keep my homer status in good stead.