Let’s face it, the Arkansas Razorbacks’ and the Ole Miss Rebels’ chances of winning the SEC or even the Western Division likely went out the window last week with their respective blowout losses to Georgia, 37-0, and Alabama, 42-21.
The No. 13 Hogs (4-1, 1-1 SEC) and the No. 17 Rebels (3-1, 0-1 SEC) are improved. Heck, one or the other might be the best of rest of the SEC, although undefeated Kentucky is looking pretty stout in the Eastern Division.
That makes Saturday’s 11 a.m. showdown between Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks’ and Lane Kiffin’s Rebels in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at Oxford, Miss. very interesting and very important for the programs of the two second-year head coaches.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Ole Miss
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 9
Where: Oxford, Miss.
Oct. 16 – Auburn
Oct. 23 — UAPB, in Little Rock
Nov. 6 — Mississippi State
Nov. 13 — at LSU
Nov. 20 — at Alabama
Nov. 26 — Missouri
“When you get embarrassed as we did last week, the only thing that gets you over that is playing another football game,” Pittman said. “So we’re excited about all that.
“I think we’ve [responded] great. I think practice has been really good. The team has responded well.
“Win or lose, we come in on Monday and put the game behind us. We’ve had some awful big wins this year, and we had to flush it and get ready for the next opponent.”
Pride is on the line. It always has been in this series that pits bordering states against one another. While both fanbases would claim more heated rivalries with other opponents, neither program can have the type of season it wants to have when it loses a game to the other.
“We have a great opponent we’re playing this week,” Pittman said. “We have a lot of respect for them. I don’t think that’ll affect us one bit what happened last week, like it shouldn’t when you win big games.”
While the history of the series dates back to the early 20th century, the Razorbacks and Rebels have played each other annually since 1981. The two programs can’t even agree on the series record because of a forfeit that Arkansas recognizes from 1914 but the Rebels ignore. Arkansas claims a 37-27-1 advantage in the series, while Ole Miss thinks its 36-28-1.
But, this year the game takes on particular significance because of those blowouts last week as well as the outcome of last year’s game.
While both Kiffin and Pittman have talked about moving on from those losses or flushing it, there is no doubt that their squad’s failures last week gnaw at the back of their minds.
Similarly, both sets of players must deal with the domination they felt on the gridiron last week. Shaking off that kind of whipping is easier said than done.
A victory in Saturday’s game certainly would help. The winner can move forward with the mindset that the blowout was an aberration, a one-time mistake that’s been overcome, while Saturday’s loser will find itself starring two losses in the face with more difficult games to come.
While it is still early, Saturday’s winner remains in the hunt for a second-level bowl like the Sugar, Outback, Citrus or possibly the Fiesta, while the loser falls down the pecking order considerably.
Kiffin called the game a “very big challenge” for his Rebels.
Image: Arkansas Razorbacks Football
“[We are] Preparing for an ultra physical football team that runs the ball extremely well and plays very, very physical and is second in the country in pass defense,” Kiffin said.
A ton is on the line in this contest which Ole Miss Heisman candidate Matt Corral has been looking forward to since last year’s nightmarish contest in which he threw six interceptions in a 33-21 loss to the Hogs. Another performance like that, and Corral can kiss his Heisman candidacy goodbye.
Arkansas walk-on cornerback Hudson Clark became a household name in the state and earned a scholarship to boot by snaring three of Corral’s passes, while safety Jalen Catalon, linebacker Grant Morgan, and nickel back Greg Brooks also reaped interceptions. All four are back again with hopes of vexing the Rebel hotshot again.
While Corral, who amazingly has not thrown an interception this season, has been off limits to the media this week, he made his intentions about Saturday’s game clear at SEC Media Days in July. He’s licking his chops to get another shot at playing against the Hogs’ umbrella zone that so befuddled him a year ago.
“I can promise you one thing. The next time I play that defense, it’s going to be much different,” Corral said at SEC Media Days this summer.
Corral averages of 302.5 passing yards per game, which ranks ninth nationally and leads the SEC. Corral ranks top 10 nationally in total offense (342.8 ypg), passing efficiency (177.3), points responsible for (96) and yards per pass attempt (9.68).
“He’s just a fine, fine player,” Pittman said. “I went back and watched his interview after our game, and I’m sure he’s going to be really excited to play us because in his words, he didn’t play very well.”
Corral is also a gifted runner for a quarterback when he needs to be. He has run for 161 yards and six scores this year.
“They’re not running as many designed runs for him as what I thought they might,” Pittman said. “I’m sure the reason is the way he throws it. There’s a lot of yards gained.
“He can obviously take off running up the middle on us, as well. We’re going to have to push the pocket and set the edge to where there’s really nowhere to go.
“If we do (get pressure), we’ll have some success. We have to move him. If he stands in the pocket, he’ll pick us apart, and we know that.”
Ole Miss ranks third nationally in total offense and fourth in scoring offense. The Rebels average 45 ppg..
Junior Jonathan Mingo (25 catches for 290 yards and 3 touchdowns) didn’t play last week because of a left foot injury. Kiffin said Monday he didn’t have an update on Mingo.
Rebels’ leading receiver is’ Dontario Drummond. Drummond went for 177 yards and 1 touchdown on 9 catches against Louisville and 107 yards and 2 touchdowns on 6 catches against Austin Peay.
Kiffin came away so impressed with Arkansas’ defense last year that Ole Miss installed the three-man front, eight-man back end similar to the one Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom organized for the Hogs, making Saturday’s game even more of a chess match.
The Rebels rank No. 80 in scoring defense (26 ppg,), but Odom’s Hogs allow just 19 ppg., which ranks 32nd in the nation.
“On defense, the portal has been really good to Ole Miss,” Pittman said.
Middle Linebacker Chance Campbell transferred in from Maryland and leads the Rebels with 29 tackles, while safety Otis Reese transferred from Georgia and has 27 tackles.
Rebels defensive end Sam Phillips leads the SEC with six sacks and ranks third nationally.
“We have to be physical,” Rebels linebacker Lakia Henry said. “We have to trust our coaches, we have to trust our scheme. It’s not a magic potion. We just have to trust and play physical.”
While Georgia overwhelmed Arkansas with its talent, the Hogs also shot themselves in the foot with an array of penalties, which Pittman and his staff are working on correcting.
“We’re pulling players off when we have penalties that we see or they call,” Pittman said Wednesday of practice. “We’re doing some things as individuals with wide receiver blocking and so forth. A lot of watching the ball on the D-line. Just trying to emphasize that more in the individual work where you can learn more than team because you have your individual unit and can set up drills and try to get those things corrected.”
Pittman and offensive line coach Kody Kennedy are also tinkering with adding some beef to the interior of the offensive front with sophomores Jalen St. John and Ty’Kieast Crawford working at guard this week instead of tackle.
“I think St. John’s maybe a little ahead of Ty’Kieast with assignment-sound football,” Pittman said. “I just believe that we need a physical presence on our inside. We need some maulers is what we need. I know we’ve got 300 across there, but if it’s 330, 350, that’s even better if they can move.”
The game could be a high-scoring affair. Whichever defense can force the most turnovers will have the advantage.
How well Hog quarterback K.J. Jefferson bounces back from being stymied at Georgia will be critical. Corral is the Heisman candidate, but Jefferson, a Sardis, Miss. native, stirs the Hogs’ drink with his arm and legs. Jefferson is the only SEC quarterback with 900 yards passing and more than 200 yards rushing. His feet and arm will have to be on point for the Hogs to return across the Mississippi River happy Saturday afternoon.
The Rebels opened as a 6-point favorite, but the advantage shrunk down to 4 by Thursday. There is no way you could get me to bet on this game, which in my estimation is a pick-’em contest.
The winner of this game truly will be able to flush the blowout it suffered the weekend before with all eyes looking forward in their quest to gain respectability for themselves and their second-year coach.
The loser will have to dig deep at the midpoint of their season and try to resuscitate what started off as a very promising season.