Much has been made, and rightfully so, about the matchup between the quarterbacks Saturday when Ole Miss visits Arkansas. Austin Allen and Chad Kelly are, with little doubt, the best two quarterbacks in the SEC this season. Accordingly, the game could be another high-scoring one, just like last year’s Razorbacks miracle in Oxford.
But when two units are so close, it’s hard to find a particular winner among them. Each team has weaknesses and strengths elsewhere. Ultimately, those are more likely to decide the game. It’s just a matter of which group of players can take advantage of the opposition’s negatives.
So, here are the Rebels and Razorbacks stack up, head-to-head, ahead of Saturday’s important (for the Hogs) game:
Kelly leads the conference in passer rating. He’s second in yards per game, completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio. He is, by any measure, a star in the SEC. Kelly can win a game with his feet, too, though he hasn’t had to this year.
Allen compares similarly. He leads the SEC in touchdowns, he’s second in passer rating, he’s third in yards-per-game and fourth in completion percentage. Allen is also only six games into his starting career. While he would be the more likely of the two to take a step back, he also has higher upside, even in a one-off game.
Advantage: Wash in every conceivable way.
Ole Miss is 12th in the SEC in rushing offense and the team’s leading rusher, Akeem Judd (302 yards), ranks 19th in the league individually. Eugene Brazley went off against Memphis for 124 yards, but he has just 181 yards this season. Stifling the running game will help Arkansas, but letting it get free will hurt worse.
Rawleigh WIlliams III averages 101 yards rushing per game. In SEC play, however, that number slips to just 62.5. Alabama, as Alabama tends to do, kept him bottled. Texas A&M limited him to one big run. Williams is still third in the SEC in rushing yards, but Arkansas will helped itself if it can get him going. In the meantime, freshman Devwah Whaley is establishing himself as the clear No. 2 and provides a different style, if far less experience. The unit is still good, but needs a strong showing against Ole Miss to help strengthen that line of thinking.
The Rebels have five receivers among the SEC’s top 40 in receptions. What it shows is that the Rebels spread the ball around. Van Jefferson and Damore’a Stringfellow have 20 catches apiece on the outside and tight end Evan Engram is one of the best in the country. He leads all SEC tight ends in catches, yards and touchdowns. Engram is fourth, second and tied for third in those categories overall in the league, tight end or otherwise. After all, Kelly’s numbers are so good because of something.
Drew Morgan is quietly third in the SEC in receptions. Keon Hatcher’s five touchdowns are second in the league as he provides a big, fast target on the perimeter. Jared Cornelius leads the league in yards per catch and is in the midst of three straight 100-yard receiving games. Jeremy Sprinkle is the counter to Engram with his 18 catches and four touchdowns. He’s just as good as Engram, but doesn’t have the totals.
Even with its lack of running backs, Ole Miss still manages a higher rushing output per game than Arkansas. That’s because its offensive line can maul. It has only given up nine sacks, which is second-best in the league. And considering how often the Rebels throw, that’s the most impressive numbers. If they can keep that up against a good Arkansas front four, Ole Miss might have its way with the Razorbacks.
For the first time in about 10 months, Arkansas coaches neglected to say mostly positive things about their offensive line. The unit has struggled, badly at times, getting Austin Allen hit about 35 times combined against Alabama and Texas A&M. The Razorbacks rushing offense is only ninth in the league, too. Frank Ragnow is a rock, we called him first-team All-SEC here at SEC Country, in the middle and Dan Skipper has excellent elements at times at left tackle. Every other position could be graded at a C … or worse.
Advantage: Ole Miss.
Marquis Haynes is perhaps the most underrated defensive end in a league filled with high-end quality at the position. He has three sacks, which puts him among the league leaders. That said, the Rebels have just nine sacks on the year. Breeland Speaks and Benito Jones are underclassmen who can play right now, too. But they’ve had issues stopping anyone on the run, ranking 13th in the SEC in rushing defense. If the Arkansas offensive line surrenders a lot to the Rebels on the front, things are going awry for the Hogs.
Let’s face it, this unit hasn’t been as great as anticipated. That isn’t to say they haven’t been good. They’ve been good most of the time. But they’re also the front line of defense that’s ninth against in the league against the rush. Deatrich Wise Jr. has three sacks, but none against SEC teams. Arkansas’ biggest strength is its ability to rotate competent players, as many as eight deep. It’ll probably be necessary against an Ole Miss team that can move it.
Terry Caldwell and DeMarcus Gates are fundamentally sound. Neither are a star and, really, neither probably will be. What they do do is avoid mistakes more often than not. And it helps Ole Miss can play as many as six linebackers without a significant drop. It’s not a great unit, but it’s also not a terrible one.
Brooks Ellis, you’re the last hope. Arkansas’ senior linebacker is the only experienced player left healthy on a unit that already had almost no depth. Dre Greenlaw, his partner in Arkansas’ 4-2-5, is gone until at least November with a foot injury. That leaves freshman De’Jon Harris, who has been decent so far, and perhaps Dwayne Eugene (with his 26 career tackles in three seasons) left to fill the void. That’s about it.
Advantage: Ole Miss
Tony Conner hasn’t had the great season that was expected, but he’s still one of the best tacklers in the SEC. Zedrick Woods has been the biggest star back there, with two interceptions, a touchdown and 29 tackles. Ole Miss gives up about 234 yards per game through the air, 10th in the SEC, but considering the lack of pass rush the unit has received, that’s been about fair.
Six games in and it can longer be said Arkansas’ secondary has potential. Potential has to come to fruition by this point. At cornerback, it has. Henre’ Toliver tackles everything, Ryan Pulley is the best cover man and still no one is throwing at Jared Collins. But, boy, those safeties have been brutal. Josh Liddell is the latest victim after an atrocious game against Alabama that saw him get on Bret Bielema’s bad side. And there are only three playable safeties on the roster, all of whom have shown they can give up big plays. Not good against a guy like Kelly.
Advantage: Ole Miss
Gary Wunderlich is one of the best two or three kickers in the league. He and Will Gleeson both can punt as the Rebels are fourth in the SEC there. That gives the Rebels the nod as Arkansas’ kicking and kickoffs have been bad. In the return game, the Rebels are in the bottom third in the SEC.
Adam McFain is the new Arkansas kicker after Cole Hedlund squandered too many opportunities. He’s 1 for 1 so far, so that’s something. Toby Baker is the best punter in the league for my money, but kickoffs remain a problem, as does the coverage unit; the return game has been non-existent and even committed a turnover last week. Arkansas doesn’t want games to come down to special teams.
Advantage: Ole Miss
All these things considered, Ole Miss as a touchdown favorite seems about right.