Arkansas' and Ole Miss' hopes of a bowl game on the line in Little Rock

Wesley Hitt

Arkansas has reeled off two straight SEC wins, but a win over Ole Miss is absolutely essential if the Hogs are going to be able to battle back to a bowl game

There was no joy a month ago.

Every game on the schedule was a long, weekly slog that looked just as bleak no matter which colors stood on the opposite sideline.

But things have brightened for the Razorbacks in the last two weeks. And the stakes have risen.

Back-to-back SEC victories - even though they were over Auburn and Kentucky - have helped wear off some of the initial shock of the season, and there's now even a small glimmer of hope for a bowl game. Wins over Ole Miss and Tulsa and one big upset could sow a final smile onto an otherwise miserable 6-6 season.

Of course, the race to a respectable finish starts this Saturday in Little Rock in a game that will be critical to determine how and where the Hogs - and the Rebels - end the season.

An Arkansas win would sustain and grow the momentum gained in the last few weeks, while a loss would send the Razorbacks back to square one right when they welcome in a 7-1 Tulsa team.

A Rebels win would give them a two-game SEC winning streak and plenty of excitement before they travel to Athens, Georgia next week.

A win for either team would be the most positive thing they've done all season. Saturday's game will either be Arkansas' first win over a team that's not in total free-fall or Ole Miss' best win of the year.

But finally - and most importantly - each team absolutely needs to win this game if it wants to go to a bowl game.

Down the stretch, Ole Miss plays Georgia, Vanderbilt, LSU and Mississippi State, while Arkansas plays Tulsa, South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU. Whoever loses this game will have a hard time - maybe even an impossible time - getting to six wins.

To a certain degree, it's remarkable what Ole Miss has done this year. As impossible as it seemed, the University of Mississippi's football team is on the rise. Sure, a major part of that is due to the fact that they were at the bottom of the bottom of the SEC, but they've gained some serious momentum in the last 10 months.

No matter who the Rebels hired as head coach last December, Ole Miss had every excuse this year to go out, throw up another 0-for-SEC season and blame it all on Houston Dale. But they haven't. Instead, they've put up a fight for themselves and their school. They didn't get embarrassed against Alabama, they should have beaten Texas A&M, and now they've got a chance at their first bowl game in three years.

On top of that, they're making headlines because they appear to have a chance to sign the number one recruit in the country. (The true mark of a return to prominence in the SEC: stealing things from Clemson.)

All of those things seemed impossible just a few months ago.

In a bizarre way, the Rebels can maybe even be kind of inspiring for Hog fans. They just broke up with a deranged lunatic and are living proof that once you clear your head and start over, life can get so much better in a hurry. Sure, everything won't be perfect right away, but in a year or so, you might even laugh at how freaking crazy that relationship with John L. was.

But now the Hogs will try to commandeer the Rebels' momentum, keep themselves in the hunt for a bowl game and possibly keep Ole Miss from going to a bowl of their own. Obviously, there's a lot more at stake than just winning a party.

(As a side note, I will contend that the War Memorial Golf Course, while nowhere near as verdant, organized or well-dressed as the Grove, can throw a pretty good party as well. If the Grove is a two parts outdoor cocktail party and one part Andrew Jackson's first inauguration, War Memorial is a crowded dive bar with cigarettes, peanuts and beer all over the floor. They're very different, but they're both damn good fun.)

Arkansas will need its best defensive performance of the season to slow a Rebel offense that averages 440 yards of offense per game with a balanced passing and rushing attack. The same goes for Ole Miss - the Rebels haven't been able to beat a team with a functional offense this season. Perhaps we'll even have another seven-overtime shootout on our hands.

It all adds up to an important Saturday in Little Rock, and an expectation that Arkansas and Ole Miss will come out of the tunnel with bad intentions on their mind. That's because the stakes are high and the truth is clear for both teams: As this game goes, so will the rest of the season.

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