This matchup with Arkansas is seemingly where the rubber meets the road for Ole Miss. A win puts the Rebels at 5-2 with three home games left and a winnable game on the road at Vanderbilt in November. A record of 5-2 for Ole Miss would be about as good of a mark as anyone could’ve foreseen through seven games, even if it hasn’t been visually appeasing at times.
A loss to the 1-5 Razorbacks could see the season quickly slip away from the Rebels with Auburn, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Mississippi State left on the schedule.
Here are three storylines to watch going into Saturday’s game:
- How effectively does Arkansas move the football with its seemingly newfound offensive success?
Arkansas is seemingly forming an offensive identity after a putrid start to the season. Chad Morris has been tasked with implementing a spread scheme with Bret Bielema’s pro-style personnel. Naturally, it has been a tough transition, but the Razorbacks put up 31 points and 407 yards of offense on Alabama last week and are finding their footing through the use of their tight ends and a lot of pre-snap motion.
“They have settled in on their quarterback, using Ty Storey as their starter and having a package for Cole Kelley,” head coach Matt Luke said. “I think they have kind of settled in with that. They did a really good job with shifts and motions last week. I think they did an outstanding job with shifts and motions, keeping Alabama off balance and keeping their tight ends involved. They did a good job with some screens to slow the pass rush down and things like that, so I think they are settling in to who they are.”
The Ole Miss defense hasn’t proved that it can stop anyone and this has the makings of a shootout. This defense has struggled with a gap and eye discipline, which could be a fatal flaw when going against an offense that tries to confuse you with its shifts and motions. How the Rebels combat this — particularly early in the game — will be telling.
“That’s what got us against SIU,” linebacker Mohamed Sanogo said. “They’re going to look at that. It’s a similar type of scheme. We really have to pin our eyes on who we’ve got, what number we have coming out and make sure we’re focused this week so we can get ready for the game.”
2. What does the Ole Miss secondary look like?
What was once thought to be the area of the Ole Miss defense that possessed the most depth, the secondary has quickly become ravaged by injuries. Jaylon Jones, Montrell Custis and C.J. Moore have been lost for the season. Ken Webster has battled a hamstring injury all season and Myles Hartsfield and C.J. Miller suffered ankle injuries last week. Miller is thought to be a game-time decision while Hartsfield has practice all week and should be ready to play.
The team converted freshman running back Tylan Knight to defense last week as well as former safety-turned-running back Armani Linton. Both will play in this game and will likely see a lot of snaps, patricianly if Miller us unable to play. How quickly can they adapt and how big of a liability will this battered secondary be?
3. Can the Ole Miss offense right the ship against an SEC defense?
For what was thought to be a dynamic offense littered with matchup nightmares on the perimeter, the Ole Miss offense has sputtered in its two SEC games this season. The unit mustered just seven points and less than 300 yards against Alabama and scored only 16 against LSU, putting a struggling defense in a bind. Granted, those of the better defenses in the SEC. But the fact remains that the Rebels have struggled against competent defenses.
“We’ve got to execute,” senior center Sean Rawlings said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to do, and that’s what we’ve kind of transitioned to in practice. Everyone’s been locked in and focused, I think his is a big opportunity to kind of turn that corner.”
To Rawlings’ point, the struggles have seemingly been more self inflicted than anything. There have been dropped balls. There have been penalties and Jordan Ta’amu has missed throws. The struggles, particularly early in the game, have put the Rebels in some sizable holes on the scoreboard because of their defensive shortcomings.
“It doesn’t matter what the game is or who you’re playing, you want to go out there and live up to your standard,” Luke said. “It’s not so much about who you’re playing, it’s about wanting to play as good as you can possibly play. If we take that approach, we’ll be better off.”
Not breaking any news here, but Ole Miss really needs to get off to a fast start in this game. It has a shorthanded defense going up against an offense that is beginning to find itself. The first couple of drives in this game will be crucial for the Rebels. Playing from behind against a team that likely sees this as one of its only opportunities at an SEC win is a dangerous proposition.
Kickoff is set for 6:30 P.M.