OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — For just about every team in the Southeastern Conference, there comes a stretch during the season where the schedule looks nearly to impossible to navigate.
Mississippi is in the midst of it right now. Coach Houston Nutt likes to call it “The Three A’s” — as in No. 7 Alabama, No. 21 Arkansas and No. 5 Auburn — during a three-week span.
All three teams are ranked, and the Rebels lost 23-10 to Alabama on Saturday.
But they don’t have any time to pout. Ole Miss (3-3, 1-2) travels to face Arkansas (4-2, 1-2) this weekend in Fayetteville, which is sure to be a hostile environment since Nutt will be returning to the place he coached for a decade for only the second time.
“We’ve got to keep working and getting better,” Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford said. “I think the defense played a lot better against Alabama and it’s definitely something we can build on. But we can’t get complacent against Arkansas, because they’re too good for that.”
Ole Miss, which came into last week’s matchup giving up more than 32 points per game, was much more stingy against the Crimson Tide.
Alabama’s known for its powerful running game, thanks to star running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and the Rebels were able to hold them to just 95 combined rushing yards.
“The biggest thing was we were gathering around the football — there wasn’t a lot of one-on-one tackles,” Nutt said. “There were at least two or more guys on each play.”
Arkansas’ offense will present a different challenge. The Razorbacks lead the SEC in passing, gaining 366 yards per game through the air. That’s not a great matchup for Ole Miss, which is 10th in the SEC in pass defense, giving up 242 yards per game.
Nutt has beaten his former school in each of the previous two meetings, but this time Arkansas is favored, despite last week’s 65-43 loss to Auburn.
Razorbacks’ star quarterback Ryan Mallett suffered a concussion during the game, and his return for this week’s game is questionable.
But even if he can’t play, Arkansas’ offense appears quite capable with backup quarterback Tyler Wilson. After Mallett’s injury, he completed 25 of 34 passes for 332 yards, though he did throw two interceptions during the fourth quarter.
“He’s pretty good,” Ole Miss cornerback Jeremy McGee said. “Whether it’s Mallett or him at quarterback, we’ve got to prepare for the passing game. There wasn’t a big drop-off after Mallett left. They’re still chucking it up there. That’s what they do.”
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said he was confident running his wide-open offense with either quarterback.
“I was very proud of Tyler,” Petrino said. “He came in there and was very confident … He stood in there and took a few shots and showed a tremendous amount of toughness. He threw a couple unfortunate interceptions in the fourth quarter, but he gave us a chance to win.”
Ole Miss has dealt with a variety of injuries in the secondary, including a rash of concussions to almost all of the main cornerbacks, including McGee, Marcus Temple and Charles Sawyer. But all of them have returned, and the Rebels hope that means more success in pass defense on Saturday.
The Alabama game, although still a loss, provided a glimmer of hope that the Rebels might be improving fast enough to scrape together six wins and become bowl-eligible for the third straight season.
“You want to win every game and you’re not satisfied when you don’t,” Nutt said. “But I like our team’s heart and how hard they play. We have to just eliminate some mistakes and go make plays.”
The Associated Press