The 2015 football season has neatly fallen into three small seasons.
The first was a nightmare, marked by a curious inability to finish drives, an offense that looked out of sync, some run game struggles, and an awful defense. The Hogs went 1-3. The Tennessee game marked a reset, kicking off the second season, where the Hogs went 3-1 (2-1 SEC) by learning to win close games and shoring up some of the defense issues.
In the third season, Arkansas must go 2-2 to reach a bowl. The key to do it will be to sustain drives on offense, and improve against the pass on defense. It starts Saturday with a difficult challenge at Ole Miss.
Arkansas won 30-0 last year, but that was a better Arkansas defense and this Ole Miss team doesn't look like its going to collapse at the end.
A loss to Memphis will likely keep Ole Miss out of the College Football Playoff, but the Rebs still control their own destiny in the SEC West, so Alabama fans will cheering for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas' Offense vs. Ole Miss' Defense
Dave Wommack (Arkansas DC 2002-2004) has had a surprising resurgence after bombing out in Fayetteville, and has the Rebels among the nation's best. The Ole Miss defense is built on speed and generally swarms opponents. Ole Miss has used recruiting and development to build a defensive front that doesn't get pushed around, allowing a perfect complement to the speed.
I am suspect of that ranking of 11th in Field Position. I think the four-overtime game (all possessions start at the opponents' 25) was accidentally counted into those numbers, throwing them off pretty badly. May want to ignore that.
Most of Arkansas' advantages (on both sides of the ball) are, per usual, up front. The Hogs don't let their QB or RBs get hit in the backfield and keep things moving forward pretty well. Arkansas' dependence on its line is reason the Hogs match up poorly with Alabama and decently with everyone else.
Ole Miss' speed (plus defensive line talent) gives it an advantage up front. The Hogs should be able to eek out yards here and there, but both teams to beat Ole Miss this year (Florida and Memphis) have done so by throwing the ball and disrupting Ole Miss' offense. Beating them with the run is not easy.
The Ole Miss pass defense has fallen off quite a bit since last year, and Florida's Will Grier and Memphis' Paxton Lynch had field days against the Rebels, as did Alabama's Jake Coker. Much of the success Ole Miss' passing game has had came when the Rebels rushed the passer well. Given the line stats we just saw, that doesn't seem as likely for this game.
Strategy-wise, Arkansas probably needs to count on long drives that mix the run and the pass. Like Auburn a couple weeks ago, Ole Miss doesn't give up many big plays, and constantly trying to throw deep will probably have the effect of stalling drives (or turning the football over). Expect to see plenty of Jared Cornelius, Drew Morgan, Hunter Henry, and Jeremy Sprinkle on quick routes, screens, and play-action passes, with Dominique Reed getting a few looks on some longer routes. Alex Collins needs 25 carries, and keep in mind that Ole Miss' speed will make running to the outside difficult, so Kody Walker may be useful early in the game as a battering ram to make Ole Miss crowd the box and open throwing lanes.
Ole Miss' Offense vs. Arkansas' Defense
Ole Miss runs a quarterback-centric spread offense that usually goes hurry-up. The main offensive weakness under Coach Hugh Freeze has been running the ball, as the Rebels' schemes are bad and the talent subpar.
This may explain why their losses tend to be blowouts: when you can't run the ball, you have to keep throwing even if it's been a disaster. Take last year's game in Fayetteville, when Ole Miss turned it over 6 times (all by quarterbacks!) causing a decent loss to turn into a rout.
Still, this year may not matter, as Ole Miss is better passing the football under quarterback Chad Kelly, and Arkansas is much worse all across the defense.
We'll start with passing, because Ole Miss' running game is inconsequential. This game pits the 3rd-ranked pass offense against the 4th-ranked pass offense in S&P+, but Arkansas' awful pass defense gives Ole Miss a decided advantage through the air.
Part of Arkansas' problem has been that it has faced good quarterbacks (Mahomes at Tech, Dobbs at Tennessee, Coker at Alabama, even Ely at Toledo) and emerging quarterbacks (White at Auburn). What Bret Bielema would give for Arkansas to be able to play teams in total quarterback disarray like Vanderbilt, South Carolina, or Georgia. The Hogs would almost certainly rout any of those teams (and likely will rout Mizzou to close the season). But for now, more good quarterback play is Arkansas' lot.
Kelly is a bit like Bo Wallace in that he is prone to total breakdowns (like against Florida). But his upside is higher, and floor may be higher too. If Kelly throws three picks and makes bad decisions, Arkansas very likely wins this game, perhaps easily. If he's on point, Arkansas has almost no chance and may get run out of the stadium.
We get a preview of Ole Miss' running game through the line play. The Rebels do not block for the run very well, although they do protect the quarterback. As bad as Arkansas' pass-rush has been, the front plays well against the run.
Yikes. Ole Miss doesn't do much on the ground.
Strategically, you generally love to hear "make them one-dimensional!" as a good gameplan. Against Ole Miss, however, it's not enough to make Ole Miss one-dimensional. They already are. Your only hope is to disrupt their only dimension. If Ole Miss is one-dimensional on Saturday, that could just as easily mean that Chad Kelly goes 30 for 52 for 425 yards and four TD's in a 31-21 Ole Miss win as it means that Arkansas plays well.
Keys to the Game
- Beat the pass on the front end OR the back end. Arkansas has two options for stopping Ole Miss' passing game. First, generate a pass-rush that has been non-existent all season and bother Kelly into sacks, fumbles, and bad decisions. Alternatively, pick off a few passes and keep Ole Miss receivers flustered. I'm not sure which is more likely (neither is very likely). If neither happens, Arkansas will need a Bo Wallace-style meltdown at the quarterback position to have a chance (and THAT might actually be more likely).
- High completion percentage. Ole Miss' defensive speed gives the Rebels an advantage against Arkansas' deep-passing game and outside running game, two essential elements. This leaves Arkansas with only two offensive advantages: a downhill running game (very small) and a short, high-percentage passing game (much better). Arkansas shouldn't abandon the run (Collins needs 25 carries), but some early-down passes of the short, safe variety should loosen the Ole Miss defense up. The return of Cornelius to the lineup should make this easier.
- Make something happen in special teams. Cornelius had a nice punt return against Tennessee-Martin, and that's the kind of thing Arkansas needs. A return, a blocked punt, a fake punt (please no), or some other special teams victory may be necessary. On the road, when the defense matches up so poorly against that offense, the Hogs may need it.
I won't be disappointed if Arkansas loses this game. There's still plenty of chances for a bowl game and this isn't a good matchup. I will be disappointed if the offense falls flat. It's supposed to be a strength this year. Robb Smith has an excuse for his defense: he's proven he can win with talent, this year he just doesn't have it, but next year and from now on he will (20 of 22 players on the defense two-deep will be back next year). Dan Enos had an excuse for the offense when he was in his first few games and working with major injuries, but now it's time for the offense to put it together against an elite defense. Former OC Jim Chaney never really did it, so Enos will get plenty more chances, but he can win over some more fans if Brandon Allen and the offense play well.