The shape of a modern football was never purposefully engineered. It was a gradual evolution driven by happenstance and necessity. One eyewitness account of the sport's first intercollegiate game back in 1869 claims the ball was spherical, but breathless players tasked with puffing it back up between plays left the job half-done and the ball lopsided. It turns out that an oval shape is easier for carrying and catching, so the ball slimmed and tapered over the decades. The invention and eventual proliferation of the forward pass necessitated even more streamlining. By the time Hunter Henry turned to heave a desperation lateral on the final drive of last season's Ole Miss-Arkansas game, the football had reached its current shape; what geometric nomenclature refers to as a prolate spheroid.
That wacky shape leads to random and unpredictable bounces -- bounces that can determine games, careers, legacies and, yes, even trips to the SEC Championship. The technical director for EA Sports' Madden NFL team estimates there are between 30 thousand and 30 billion different ways a randomly tossed football can bounce, yet Henry's fourth-and-25 prayer bounded straight up, delivered neatly into the arms of star running back Alex Collins, of all people, who scampered for a first down that carried the Hogs to a 53-52 win and scuttled Ole Miss' trip to Atlanta.
The Rebels' dreams of an SEC West crown are already considerably dimmed this season -- let's be honest, the chances of Alabama losing two SEC games aren't all that much better than Henry's miracle bounce -- but any lingering hope rests on turning their luck against the Hogs this Saturday in Fayetteville.
Bounces aside, the odds are in Ole Miss' favor.
How to watch
When: 6 p.m. CT
Online streaming: WatchESPN
3 questions that will decide the game
1. Will Ole Miss be able to take advantage of Arkansas’ awful run D?
After abandoning the run during the second-half collapse against Florida State and futilely banging its head against the nation’s No. 1 run defense against Alabama, the Rebel ground attack looked a lot better while averaging 6.2 yards per carry against Georgia and Memphis. Not the sturdiest of run defenses, sure, but better than Arkansas.
The Razorbacks’ numbers against the run are bad bad: 120th in rushing S&P+, 102nd in rushing success rate, dead last among 128 FBS teams in isoPPP (a measure of explosiveness). It doesn’t help that linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who led the Hogs in tackles going into the Bama game, broke his foot against the Tide last week. The wins over Georgia and Memphis proved how devastating the Ole Miss offense can be if it stays balanced, which could make this a loooong game for the Razorback defense.
The one thing Arkansas’ defensive front can do is get after the quarterback. Led by Deatrich Wise, the Hogs rank 18th in the country in adjusted sack rate. That’s probably their best chance to slow down Chad Kelly, who’s been at his worst this season when under pressure.
2. Can the Rebel linebackers cover anyone?
Bret Bielema’s offense has been surprisingly inefficient moving the ball on the ground this season (92nd in rushing success rate), which in the recent past would have meant it was inefficient moving the ball, period. But quarterback Austin Allen has picked up right where his big brother, Brandon, left off last season, leading the SEC in passing touchdowns and ranking second behind Kelly in passer rating. It was Brandon’s arm that beat Ole Miss in 2015, and it’s Austin’s that can do it again on Saturday if the Rebels pass D can’t step up.
Ole Miss’ young defensive backs have improved steadily since that ugly showing in Orlando, but the linebackers are a different story. Memphis’ spread passing attack exposed their inability to effectively drop into coverage, which could spell big trouble against an Arkansas offense that loves to work the ball to its tight ends off play action. DeMarquis Gates’ potential return from suspension would be a huge help, but even then the Rebel backers will have their hands full.
3. Can the Hogs O-line keep Allen upright?
Of course, he can only shred the Rebel linebackers if he has time to throw. Allen, who was sacked six times and pressured on nearly 69 percent of his dropbacks against Bama, has been the most pressured quarterback in the nation through six weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. Star Ole Miss pass rusher Marquis Haynes has struggled to finish sacks this season, but shouldn't have as much trouble against the less mobile Allen.
Still, pressuring Allen doesn't necessarily mean capping his effectiveness.
"I saw Alabama knocking their quarterback around and him still throwing for 400 yards," Ole Miss D-coordinator Dave Wommack told The Ole Miss Spirit. "He put it on the money, even under pressure. Alabama did a great job stopping their run game and pressuring him, but he made great throws regardless, and he has done that all year.
Projections and predictions
Vegas: As of Friday morning, Bovada’s latest line has Ole Miss by 7.5.
F&P+: Bill C.’s numbers give Ole Miss a 62 percent chance of winning with a projected margin of 5.4 points.
FPI: ESPN’s advanced metrics give Ole Miss an 76.6 percent chance of winning.
RCR’s pick ‘em panel: 10 of 11 of us picked Ole Miss to cover the spread.
My pick: That one Cupper who didn't pick the Rebs to cover? That'd be me. The matchup clearly favors Ole Miss, but it's a noted fact that weird shit happens in Ole Miss-Arkansas games. The Rebs have their way on offense, but some wacky turnovers and the linebackers' struggles in pass coverage keep Arkansas in it late. I'll go 38-31, Ole Miss.
Required reading (and listening)
- Remember the crazy-as-hell seven-overtime Ole Miss-Arkansas game?
- Austin Allen could be just as dangerous as his brother, Brandon.
- The Hogs' ground game is down, but Arkansas can still move the ball.
- Podcast Rebellion breaks down the matchup.
- Bert, in pictures.
- Red Cup picks all the big Week 7 games against the spread.