By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt will face his former program for the third time on Saturday, and despite the time that’s passed since his tenure with Arkansas, many hard feelings remain.
It’s no secret many Arkansas fans still despise Nutt, who had an up-and-down 10 years with the Razorbacks. Nutt’s emotions are still mixed after a dream job in his home state turned toxic.
When asked about the rivalry recently, he thought hard about what to say. A smile slowly crept across his face before he finally broke out in laughter.
“I don’t know — I think it has probably died down a little bit,” Nutt said. “But I’m sure there are a few people that naturally want to see Houston Nutt beat.”
After leaving for Ole Miss, Nutt has beaten Arkansas twice in a row — once in Fayetteville, Ark., and once in Oxford, Miss.
But much more than revenge is at stake on Saturday.
Ole Miss (3-3, 1-2) is trying to take a big step toward becoming bowl-eligible for the third straight season. No. 21 Arkansas (4-2, 1-2) needs a win to right its once-promising season.
Nutt’s first game back to Fayetteville was an electric scene, with 74,168 fans booing Nutt’s every move. Ole Miss built an early lead before hanging on in the final seconds for a 23-21 victory.
“It got pretty crazy that first time they announced coach Nutt with the Ole Miss Rebels,” Ole Miss running back Brandon Bolden said. “Then after the game, it got even more crazy trying to get back to the locker room.”
Last season, Nutt and Ole Miss won 30-19 in Oxford.
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said there was no doubt Saturday’s game was important, but not because his team would be facing the coach that recruited many of the players on the current roster.
“I don’t know how much of it has to do with coach Nutt, but they’ve got us the past two years,” he said. “And I know that sticks in our minds. We definitely want to come out and have a good game this week and press on.”
A good game on Saturday would erase the memory of last week’s 65-43 loss to now No. 5 Auburn. Wilson threw for 332 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions then and starter Ryan Mallett left the game with a concussion.
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said the emotions surrounding Nutt’s return were a non-issue.
“My thoughts are we need to worry about us,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “We have to do a great job this week of being fresh physically, fresh mentally and take care of our business and get well-prepared and go perform on Saturday the way we can.”
Similarly, Nutt said his team wouldn’t be sidetracked by any storyline other than winning.
“The thing about the SEC that I’m more concerned with — because our league is so good — is you better be focused on the task at hand,” Nutt said. “You better worry about that. You really don’t have time to worry about what they think and about the emotion. I’m not really concerned about that.”
Even so, totally dismissing the emotional side of this rivalry is impossible. Another sellout crowd is expected, and Nutt still won’t win any popularity contests in Arkansas.
“He tries not to talk about it,” Bolden said. “But the players know it’s something personal and it’s a game that he wants to go out and win. So we try to give that to him.”
AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Ark., contributed to this story.