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Arkansas’ 2017 record is irrelevant against Ole Miss

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The Hogs are 2-5, but that doesn’t make this game a cupcake.

Arkansas v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Through seven games of mostly disappointment and suffering, we have a general idea of this Ole Miss team’s makeup. Despite boasting an abundance of big-play potential, the offense hasn’t been able to consistently produce against Power Five teams, and the defense is what it is. They have something of an identity that fits their personnel — it’s just not going to work against everyone.

With the toughest chunk of the schedule behind them, the Rebels’ next three opponents rank 90th or worse in S&P+. Typically, it’d be easy to go ahead and mark these off as probable wins, but Ole Miss-Arkansas has proven to be one of the most unpredictable affairs in all of college football.

S&P+ gives Ole Miss a 62% chance winning, and they also opened as a 3.5-point favorite over the 2-5 Hogs according to Vegas. For obvious reasons, none of that provides comfort to Rebel fans. In each of the last three years, Brett Bielema’s squad has entered this tussle as the underdog and emerged victorious.

Matt Luke may be wielding the better team on paper, but if recent history tells us anything, it’s to take a closer look at the matchups.

Arkansas is still capable of sitting on the ball.

At the time of last year’s skirmish in Fayetteville, Dan Enos’ group was still finding its way on the ground, and Austin Allen was having to pick up the slack through the air. Even then, the Razorbacks outperformed their season averages against Ole Miss, as teams are wont to do.

This time around, the raw offensive numbers aren’t flashy, but the Hogs rank 2nd in rushing S&P when adjusting for opponent. Wesley McGriff’s front seven is still bleeding from the gashes Derrius Guice left last Saturday, and it’s hard to see them suddenly excelling in this area.

It’s entirely possible that this game comes down to Arkansas running the ball well enough to move the chains and turning it into a contest of ball control. The Landsharks would serve themselves well by occasionally stuffing some of these runs and setting up obvious passing situations.

Arky’s passing game is struggling, and Ole Miss needs to take advantage.

In 2016, the Razorbacks excelled at staying on schedule last year against the Rebels, getting the yards they needed 53 percent of the time on standard downs. That level of stability is what ultimately decided the game.

If Ole Miss can prevent them from maintaining that kind of leverage, they’ll be rewarded by pressuring whoever is behind center to convert critical passing downs. After losing left tackle Dan Skipper, the Hogs’ pass protection is a bit leaky, ranking 100th nationally in adjusted sack rate. As a result, Austin Allen’s completion rate has dropped to 56 percent, and he’s gone for barely over six yards per throw.

If Allen’s shoulder injury keeps him out, they’ll go to redshirt freshman Cole Kelley, who’s thrown for a measly 4.8 yards per attempt. He’s certainly not someone Enos wants to give a ton of responsibility to, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be backed up into enough late-down holes to make mistakes. Danny Etling didn’t complete a single attempt on passing downs last week, but there were only four such plays. This game could be more of the same unless the Rebel front evolves.

Ole Miss’ offense is a giant question mark.

With Chad Kelly at the helm in 2016, this Rebel team was expected to put up a ton of points on a mediocre Razorback defense, but they sputtered through the entire second half. Now we get to see JUCO transfer Jordan Ta’amu try to redeem this group, heading into the game with a Division I resume of just 11 passing attempts.

Aside from the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position, this should be a favorable matchup for Phil Longo’s unit. Arkansas’ defense is even worse than Ole Miss when it comes to allowing teams to move the ball with regularity, ranking 108th in standard downs success rate. They’re also 83rd in IsoPPP (a measure of explosiveness), which is great news for a Rebel offense that ranks fourth in that metric.

Don’t look now, but Ole Miss seems to have found a semi-reliable running game, most recently posting a 52 percent success rate on the ground against LSU. Over the last four games, Jordan Wilkins has averaged 6.5 yards per carry, and should be good to go after hurting his ankle against the Tigers. Designed runs for Ta’amu, who’s rushed for 52 yards on six carries this year, should also open things up for the rest of the offense.

Bielema is 10-26 against SEC teams, but that record means nothing in this particular clash. There are reasons to be optimistic about the Rebels’ chances Saturday, but against Arkansas as of late, there seem to be more reasons for Ole Miss to resist any feelings resembling hope.