Immediately following a 41-20 win over Auburn to break a 16-game losing streak, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze was asked if it might be better for his team to skip the open date, if possible, and carry the momentum right back on to the field.
He quickly answered that would not be best. His team needed an open date to heal and rest, he said, and he wanted to focus a little more on recruiting as well.
There is a down side to losing momentum, however, when you step away from the grind. That showed up a little bit on Tuesday with a sluggish first part of the practice, Freeze said.
Whether that’s truly a factor in Little Rock Saturday morning remains to be seen.
The greater factors in what I think will be an Arkansas win will be a resurgent Tyler Wilson and the increasing health of his targets, most notably the return of tight end Chris Gragg. Gragg can help spark a sagging Arkansas run game, but more importantly he’ll deflect attention from Wilson’s primary threat, Cobi Hamilton, who leads the SEC in receiving yards with 107.7 a game. Not to mention Gragg’s own receiving contributions. He had 19 catches for 234 yards and two touchdowns before getting injured against Rutgers in Week 4.
Ole Miss will need to get pressure on Wilson, and it’s quite capable of doing so. That freshman DB Mike Hilton is healthy and ready to go is a big plus in that regard.
When I think of this game I’m reminded of Freeze’s comments prior to the Rebels’ 30-27 come-from-ahead loss to Texas A&M. Freeze talked about wanting to get into the fourth quarter of SEC games. Winning them would be an entirely different matter, another step for a rebuilding Ole Miss team, he said.
I think the same applies to SEC road games. I’m not sure the Rebels pull it off in their first attempt. I’m not really counting Alabama as an attempt, because I figure they lose that one regardless of location. The same is not true for Arkansas. This is a very winnable game if the Rebels play well, a toss-up.
But Ole Miss has struggled when good passers have had time in the pocket. Exhibit A, David Ash. Exhibit B, A.J. McCarron. You can add Auburn’s Clint Moseley to that pair for a half. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack believes a revamped secondary — with Charles Sawyer moving down to corner and athletic Senquez Golson moving back into the lineup — is improving. It will need to be on top of its game against Wilson.
The Rebels will need to be strong on offense and score points. You figure Wilson will help Arkansas get theirs. Running the ball has been the Rebels’ MO. They need Jeff Scott to be on top of his game. Arkansas is No. 38 nationally in run defense, a standing boosted by recent games against Auburn and Kentucky. It was No. 67 in run defense three weeks ago.
They say the Hogs get amped up to play in Little Rock. Well, La.-Monroe was able to win there, so I figure Ole Miss is capable.
But I think Wilson’s accuracy, the return of Gragg and the process of Ole Miss still learning to win on the SEC road — something it’s not done since a 23-7 win at Vanderbilt in 2009 — will add up to a narrow loss.
Prediction: Arkansas 29, Ole Miss 26