Arkansas-Mississippi Preview

November 3, 2015

(AP) - It's been a long grind for No. 19 Mississippi, which will play its 10th game in 10 weeks Saturday when it hosts Arkansas.

If the Rebels can beat the Razorbacks, some much-needed rest awaits with a Nov. 14 bye, along with their best opportunity to win the SEC's Western Division in over a decade.

Ole Miss (7-2, 4-1) has recovered since a surprising 37-24 loss to Memphis on Oct. 17 with win over Texas A&M and Auburn. The defense, which was shredded against Memphis, has played much better and also returned some key players to the field for the November push.

"We are right in the thick of things," fourth-year coach Hugh Freeze said. "I think that's what the Ole Miss people wanted a few years back, and we are there. Now we need to build on them."


A good next step would be handling the Razorbacks (4-4, 2-2), who crushed Ole Miss 30-0 in Fayetteville last season. Arkansas has won two straight after a rough start, including a 54-46 four-overtime thriller against Auburn on Oct. 24.

Freeze has said several times that he doesn't really talk about "revenge" games, but acknowledged last year's loss on a cold and rainy day was a miserable experience that was embarrassing for his offense.

"I'm a competitor and an offensive coach," he said. "As soon as we were able to turn our attention from Auburn, (Arkansas) was on my mind. I like getting another shot at that. It motivates me."

The Ole Miss offense appears to have found some balance after some pass-heavy games during the first half of the season.

The return of all-conference left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who was suspended for the first seven games after the NCAA ruled he received improper benefits, has solidified the offensive line. The Rebels had 558 total yards against Auburn.

Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche also returned after missing one game because of a concussion suffered against Memphis. Freeze is hopeful that starting safety Tony Conner can now return after missing the past six with a torn MCL in his right knee.

One of the few concerns is quarterback Chad Kelly. Although he leads the SEC by wide margins with 2,856 yards passing and 20 TDs, he's also had a problem with turnovers.

He's thrown seven interceptions over the past three games and is now tied for the league lead with 12. Kelly said that most of his mistakes are "correctable" and that he's working on shaking off early mistakes and making better plays later in games.

"You can't get too high or too low because you just never know," he said. "You've got to stay focused and have confidence in the guys around you that they're going to make plays."

Kelly and the offense do have the luxury of facing a Razorbacks defense that has gone from one of the best in the country a season ago to middle of the road this year.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith wasn't pleased after a 63-28 win over Tennessee-Martin last Saturday in which his unit allowed 519 yards.

"We know we've got to get better in certain areas, and that's our primary focus," Smith said. "We certainly have to play very good pass defense this week, if we want to be successful against Ole Miss."

After finishing last season 10th in the country in total defense, Arkansas enters this matchup struggling with an SEC-worst pass rush that's garnered only seven sacks through eight games. The lack of pressure has allowed opposing quarterbacks to pick apart the secondary for an average of roughly 273 yards through the air.

While coach Bret Bielema said he's more concerned with points allowed, that category is equally disconcerting with four SEC games remaining. The Razorbacks are allowing 26.6 points per game compared to 19.2 a year ago.

They began the season missing four key players from last year's defense, all of whom were drafted into the NFL. Two of those players - Trey Flowers and Darius Philon - were the team's best pass rushers, combining for 10 1/2 sacks.

Bielema and Smith have lauded the team's improved depth on the defensive line. Tevin Beanum and Mitchell Loewen lead the team with a paltry 1 1/2 sacks apiece.

The team's seven overall sacks are five behind the next-worst team in the SEC - Auburn has 12 - and its average of less than a sack is 123rd out of 127 teams in the country.

Bielema, however, attributes it to rotating 10 linemen compared to six a year ago.

Still, the Razorbacks are well off their pace of 24 sacks in 13 games last season - something they must correct with games against the Rebels, No. 4 LSU and No. 24 Mississippi State over the next three weeks.