Sifting through the ashes of a 37-24 loss at Memphis someone pointed out, correctly, that the loss did not affect Ole Miss in the SEC standings and that the Rebels were still in control of their fate in that regard.
It was a very hollow attempt at soothing a devastating loss.
It’s not that it was open for debate. It’s that winning the SEC West seemed like such an unattainable goal based on the level of competency just demonstrated.
The Rebels had in fact been inching toward that Memphis loss. Since a dominating performance at Alabama Ole Miss had sleep-walked past Vanderbilt, been dominated by Florida and had blown out New Mexico State which is easily overwhelmed most weekends.
Laremy Tunsil would soon return but with that a great challenge by Texas A&M’s ends and a bit of an unknown about Tunsil’s conditioning.
There was no clear word on C.J. Johnson and Tony Conner.
Coaches and players pledged to take one game at a time, a worn out cliché but one with meaning.
I didn’t pick the Rebels to beat A&M based on recent events.
I had seen Ole Miss play at a much higher level than it was showing. So had Hugh Freeze and the team meetings that followed the Memphis game underscored the sense of urgency among the coaching staff.
Everyone could see that Ole Miss was in control of its SEC fate leaving Memphis, but now it’s a lot easier to see a path. Now, with Arkansas visiting this weekend, you can begin to think this could really happen.
Now the Rebels are 2-0 in that brutal stretch of five SEC West games to close the season.
It’s not easy to solve multiple problems in the middle of the year, but clearly tackling has become a priority in practice.
I thought coming out of Memphis that the Rebels would improve there, but I was less certain they would show quick improvement in pass coverage.
Florida’s Will Grier and Memphis’ Paxton Lynch had completed a combined 77 percent of their pass attempts against Ole Miss and had done it in different ways. Grier hurt the Rebels with crossing patterns, a weakness that got better when Mike Hilton moved to Huskie. Lynch hurt the Rebels with deep out patterns as Ole Miss corners were consistently giving up too much ground.
Now opponents have completed only 40.2 percent the last two weeks. A&M quarterback Kyle Allen was banged up, and Auburn’s Sean White has been steady but not elite, but 40.2 percent is impressive.
Against Arkansas the Rebels will face a quarterback who isn’t elite. Brandon Allen is best described as a game manager who will try to sting Ole Miss with play-action passing. If the Rebels can slow the run game, something they’ve done fairly well this year, they’ll limit Allen’s ability to do that.
That won’t be all they have to do to limit Allen. He’s an experienced fifth-year senior, a guy who leads the SEC in pass efficiency with a 157.6 rating.
The Ole Miss pass rush has been much better of late as well, particularly with Marquis Haynes, the back-to-back winner of the SEC’s Defensive Lineman of the Week award. Haynes has four sacks in the last two games.
Allen won’t be easy to rattle. He’s thrown 15 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
There is last year’s 30-0 beatdown to consider. It will motivate the players to some degree, and Hugh Freeze jumped on that early in the week saying it motivates him too.
Probably Freeze is just trying to let his players see his emotion.
The Arkansas guys will expect that type of alert level from Ole Miss so I expect them to be prepared to match the intensity as players say.
Ole Miss has run the ball much better the last two weeks. Granted, it was against run defenses that ranked No. 97 and No. 100, but there’s no understating what Tunsil’s return has meant to Ole Miss.
Arkansas is much better against the run, a physical front seven with safeties that crash the box. The Razorbacks are allowing 117.9 yards a game, fifth in the SEC and 20th in America.
It will be a tougher challenge for the Rebels’ revived run game.
Freeze and offensive coordinator Dan Werner, who now is calling most of the plays from a predetermined package that Freeze will sign off on based on flow of the game, will insist on running the ball.
They are also aware of an Arkansas secondary that ranks No. 114 in passing yards allowed, No. 95 in pass efficiency defense.
There will be opportunities down field against the Razorbacks.
Matchups don’t matter nearly as much if you don’t bring focus and energy. Bringing back your best players who missed multiple games this season – Tunsil, Conner, Johnson – is a big plus too.
I expect Ole Miss to play with energy and focus.
Unlike turning the page from Memphis to Texas A&M, I expect Ole Miss to win this game.
And if that happens, then the Rebels have two weeks to heal and prepare for a home game against LSU.
Then all of a sudden one game at a time starts to add up, and controlling your SEC destiny, winning out against the league, seems like something that could really happen.
Prediction: Ole Miss 30, Arkansas 23