Octavious Cooley never knew the defender was behind him. The Ole Miss tight end, sprinting downfield after a 31-yard catch and run, was so busy stiff-arming an Arkansas cornerback on his left that he didn’t realize the safety was closing in on his right until the ball’d been punched out. It tumbled to the ground and just trembled there, as if tied to a string keeping it from rolling out of bounds, until a Razorback defender hurtled himself on top of it.
“Fuck,” I muttered over a half-empty Miller Lite. “We’re gonna lose this game.”
My friends, a group of Mississippi ex-pats sprawled around a TV in the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C., rolled their eyes. Ole Miss was leading 31-7 midway through the second quarter of a 2017 matchup in Oxford. The offense, fueled by a breakout performance from quarterback Jordan Ta’amu in his first game as the starter, was cruising up and down the field against an overwhelmed Hogs defense.
Ten plays later, Arkansas scored. They pilfered an interception on the Rebels’ next drive and scored again. They kept scoring in the second half and by the time the clock hit zeros, they’d rallied from down 24 points to win, 38-37.
My profane post-fumble prediction wasn’t a moment of clairvoyance born of some advanced football acumen. I probably muttered the same thing 10 times that game. It revealed no more foresight than if I’d said it when the Razorbacks won the opening coin toss. It was a simple acknowledgment that anything—a 24-point comeback, a last-second field goal, a fourth-and-25 prayer—can happen in this rivalry.
For the better part of a decade, Ole Miss-Arkansas has been the most insane and unpredictable series in college football.
I grew up about a 10-minute walk from Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium, where this Saturday’s Ole Miss-Arkansas game will take place—a game in which Vegas favors the Rebels by a touchdown but which everyone familiar with this series knows might as well be a coin flip.
Football rivalry is fueled not by wins and losses but by proximity. Raised by a pair of Ole Miss alumni in the heart of Hog country, I developed as searing a dislike of the Razorbacks as one can reasonably harbor against a sports team. I hated Clint Stoerner. I hated Matt Jones. I hated Wally Hall, the local sports writer whose daily columns in the Democrat-Gazette were objective in the same way that propaganda in Stalin’s Russia was.
But, boy, did I hate Houston Nutt. After his ignominious departure from Fayetteville and subsequent flameout in Oxford, it’s easy to forget that Hooty Dale helmed a pretty successful SEC program for a decade in the hills of northwest Arkansas. The Hogs went 7-3 against Ole Miss during that span, including a four-year winning streak from 2003-07 to close out Nutt’s tenure—a streak that coincided with my four years of high school, when I had to trudge into class on Monday and endure my friends’ jabs.
Ole Miss and Arkansas had coexisted as division opponents in neighboring states since the Razorbacks moved over from the old Southwest Conference in 1991, but Nutt’s hiring at Ole Miss in 2007 elevated the rivalry to previously unknown levels of lunacy. In his highly anticipated return to Fayetteville that first season, the game swung on an offensive pass interference that backed the Hogs out of field goal range in the final minute. I remember being sprawled on a cold metal bleacher at the top of Razorback Stadium, as emotionally spent as I’ve ever been after a Rebels win.
Nutt made it two in a row against his former team the following year, thumping the Hogs in Oxford. A friend from Little Rock and I spotted a jubilant (and as far as I could tell, intoxicated) Nutt after the game as he waited in the back seat of an SUV parked outside of a pizza joint on the Square. “What do you think about Mitch Mustain?” I asked through the window, referring to the former Razorback quarterback whose transfer two years prior played no small role in Nutt’s departure from Fayetteville. “FUCK MITCH MUSTAIN,” Nutt replied gleefully.
That was the last win Nutt ever notched over Arkansas. Two years later, his Rebels blew a 17-point lead in a home loss to the Hogs, extending Ole Miss’ conference losing streak to 10 games. Nutt was fired two weeks later.
The arrival of Hugh Freeze in Oxford—and, a year later, of Bret Bielema in Fayetteville—ushered the series into the peak of its frenzied hysteria.
After a four-play, 55-yard drive brought Arkansas even with just over two minutes remaining, the Rebels marched downfield for a game-winning Bryson Rose field goal as time expired, stunning the crowd in Little Rock.
With the game separated by just three points late in the third quarter, Bo Wallace connected on touchdown passes of 75 and 55 yards in the span of three minutes to hand Ole Miss a 34-24 win.
A top-10 Ole Miss team that had started 7-0 and shocked Alabama was dismantled by an unranked Arkansas team, 30-0, on a cold, rain-drenched October afternoon in Fayetteville. I will forever remember it as the most miserable sports event I’ve ever attended.
After 10 fourth-quarter points gave Ole Miss its first lead of the game, the Hogs embarked on a 10-play touchdown drive, taking the lead with 2:20 left on the board. Facing an all-or-nothing fourth-and-16, Chad Kelly’s desperation scamper came up one-yard shy of the first down.
Of course, nothing encapsulates the batshit insanity of this series like Fourth-and-Twenty-Five.
Anyone who’s ever attempted to bounce a football straight up in the air knows its not an easy thing to do. Taking its original oblong form from the inflated pig livers it was once made of, the ball gradually slimmed over the decades, reshaped by the rise of the forward pass into what’s technically referred to as a prolate spheroid. The perfect agent of chaos. The creators of the Madden video game employ an entire team of physicists who spend hours dropping and throwing and rolling footballs and measuring the results—the group’s technical director estimates a dropped football can bounce some 30,000 different directions.
When you factor in all of the other variables that accompany 22 men in padded armor bashing each other on a 160-foot wide field, the odds of Hunter Henry’s desperation lateral bouncing to one of his teammates on an October night in 2015 was somewhere near nonexistent.
Seventeen lead changes and over 1,100 yards of combined offense hadn’t been enough to settle the game in regulation. The Rebels scored easily to open the overtime period, then bagged a huge sack to force Arkansas into an impossible fourth-and-25.
I don’t remember where I was watching. I don’t remember much about what had transpired in the game up to that point. But the play itself is seared into my memory. Brandon Allen takes the snap, vainly searching downfield as he drifts to his left. He fires to tight end Hunter Henry, who catches it on the far sideline some 10 yards shy of the first down. As Henry is twirled to the ground by a defender, he heaves the ball over his shoulder in an act of pure desperation, catapulting it back into a scrum near the line of scrimmage.
Not only does the ball defy the overwhelming probabilities of physics by bouncing straight up into the air and into the arms of a Razorbacks player, it bounces straight up into the arms of All-SEC running back Alex Collins, who scampers through the chaos for a first down. The Razorbacks score two plays later and eventually convert a game-winning two-point conversion.
The Rebels finished the 2015 regular season 9-3, one game behind Alabama, who they’d shocked in Tuscaloosa earlier in the year. Had Henry’s desperation heave bounced in any other direction, Ole Miss would have headed to its first ever SEC Championship game.
On paper, Ole Miss is the easy favorite favorite heading into Saturday’s game in Little Rock. The Rebels are 4-2, having lost badly to Alabama and LSU but won handily against their other four opponents. The Razorbacks are just 1-5 under first year head coach Chad Morris, including a road loss at Colorado State and a home blowout at the hands of North Texas. Vegas favors Ole Miss by a full seven points. The S&P+ analytics system predicts the Rebs by six, giving them a 64 percent chance to win. ESPN’s Football Power Index ups it to 70 percent.
Throw all of that out the window: Ole Miss has been the Vegas pick three times during its four-game losing streak against the Hogs. Applying logic and order to college football’s most deranged series is an exercise in futility. Quarterback’s playing flawless games throw interceptions at the most inopportune times, back-breaking penalties erase critical plays, the laws of physics take their pants off and start doing handstands.
There is no predicting chaos. You might as well be guessing which way a fumbled football will bounce.