J.R. and Henry: Ole Miss Game a Proving Ground
Validation. That’s what this Saturday’s game offers the Arkansas Razorbacks an opportunity to earn. For as dominating as Arkansas was in the Hogs’ 27-10 victory over Auburn, on a national level that game is all but forgotten. Auburn is the team on the national radar, and Arkansas is still considered a one-trick pony, good for a big upset now and again, but not a team considered a serious championship contender, apparently even when holding a defacto two-game lead in the division.
The Ole Miss game presents the Hogs with a chance to convince some skeptics of this team’s worth. For as good as Arkansas looked against Auburn, it was still one game, and the Razorbacks didn’t set the world on fire in their first four games of the year. First impressions are often the most memorable, and football fans and writers who saw Southern California dominate Arkansas in Fayetteville on Labor Day weekend won’t be convinced that Arkansas has turned the corner based on one victory.
For instance, Dennis Dodd, who writes for cbssportsline.com, outlines in a column this week how Auburn can still make the national championship game. He has the Razorbacks ranked 20th in his power poll, behind Boise State and Rutgers among others. Steward Mandel, writing for cnnsi.com, called Auburn’s loss to Arkansas a “debacle” and writes how Auburn “brushed off” the loss to the Razorbacks by beating the Gators the week after. Pete Fiutak of collegefootballnews.com, in breaking down the first BCS rankings writes, “The loss to Arkansas didn’t appear to matter too much as the Tigers are within shouting distance of being in the national title game needing to win out and hoping for a USC loss.”
The old saying time heals all wounds applies double quick for the Auburn Tigers. The Arkansas loss is long forgotten memory. And one that most writers seem to be trying to forget, maybe because of the general sentiment that Auburn was wronged by not getting a chance to play for the title in 2004 after going undefeated in the SEC. And the Tigers were, but welcome to the world of playoff-free college football. Being robbed in 2004 shouldn’t entitle Auburn to special treatment in 2006.
Now, Ole Miss is not Auburn, and a win over the Rebels probably won’t turn that many heads outside of the SEC. But for those fans of teams in the SEC, many are probably very interested to see how Arkansas responds to success. While the Rebels have only prevailed in one conference game (17-10 over Vanderbilt in Oxford), they lost a close game to Georgia (14-9) and played Alabama better (a 26-23 overtime loss in Tuscaloosa) than Arkansas did. A dominating win over Ole Miss could suggest that this Razorback team won’t lose more than one game the rest of the year, and thereby cement a spot in the SEC championship game regardless of what Auburn does. Whereas a hard fought close victory (or a loss obviously) will probably lead SEC fans to believe what most in the nation already do: that the Arkansas win over Auburn was a fluke, and that the Hogs are a serious contender for the Cotton Bowl, and not the BCS.
And there is reason for concern for Arkansas fans. Ole Miss is a young and improving team. The Rebels’ quarterback, Brent Schaeffer is also improving and becoming more familiar with the offense. After transferring from junior college, Schaeffer’s eligibility cleared up late, and he missed most of fall camp as a result. The player who once started for Tennessee as a true freshman had his best game against Alabama, and his mobility will present a problem for the Arkansas defense that struggled earlier this year to contain another fleet-footed quarterback in Vanderbilt’s Chris Nickson.
Perhaps more worrisome is the time slot. It’s no secret that the 11:30 a.m. (formerly Jefferson Pilot, now Lincoln Financial) games are prime time for upset purposes. Georgia lost to Vanderbilt last week, and Auburn lost to Arkansas in an even earlier affair at 11 a.m. on CBS two weeks ago. For whatever reason, an early kickoff favors the road team.
But even with all that, a team that fancies itself a legitimate contender for the conference title should take care of business on Saturday. Besides, Arkansas is coming off an easy win against Southeast Missouri State, and has Louisiana Monroe next week. So there should be no letdown from a big win, and there should be no looking past Ole Miss to the next game.
So this is a big game for Arkansas. Big for the conference race, and big for moving Arkansas back into the national conversation. Odds are Arkansas’s players know that, and they’re going to bring effort.
J.R. and Henry Prediction: Arkansas 27 Ole Miss 20.
J.R. and Henry blog their sports column at Little Rock every Monday and Thursday.