LITTLE ROCK — All along, identifying a Mississippi football team as a measuring stick for Arkansas made sense.
Right idea, wrong school from the Magnolia State. Sub Ole Miss for Mississippi State and the analysis is on the mark.
Back when 9-3 appeared doable, the prediction included a sweep of the non-conference teams and Ws over Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State with the notation: “Mississippi State may be the most difficult game of the four …”
Considering the embarrassing start to the season against talented opponents and the bounce-back against the dregs of the Southeastern Conference, it is today’s game against the Rebels that will provide some insight about the Razorbacks. They are not as bad as they looked in losses to Alabama and Texas A&M nor as good as they looked in victories over Auburn and Kentucky.
In this instance, the records of Arkansas’ opponents says a lot. The teams that beat the Razorbacks are 24-4 and three of them are in first place in their conferences. The BCS teams that Arkansas defeated are 2-13 and 0-10 in the SEC.
Getting a handle on Ole Miss is equally difficult. The Rebels have lost to teams that are 17-4 and have beaten BCS teams that are 4-18.
The Razorbacks and Rebels are so evenly matched that they might be playing an elimination game for the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham. Before the season, such a bowl game would have been viewed as an accomplishment for the Rebels and a disappointment for the Razorbacks. The 1-4 start revamped Arkansas’ perspective.
Trying to pick a winner, the fact that both teams had last week off only adds to the confusion. When bogged down with what-ifs, fall back on the tried and true and nothing in football is more definitive than turnovers.
After five games, Arkansas was the worst in the nation in turnover margin. The next two weeks, the Razorbacks got five and surrendered two and won twice.
Nationally, the top 11 teams in turnover margin are 73-4.
“Turnover margin has really been key for us this season,” said Will Muschamp, whose unbeaten Florida Gators were 113th in the nation in turnover margin last year and who are tied for ninth this year. South Carolina made it easy for the Gators in Gainesville and Texas A&M helped LSU in College Station, losing the turnover battle 5-0.
All coaches recognize the value of getting turnovers and protecting the ball and all teams work to do both, but many times yea or nay comes down to a decision by the quarterback.
Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, who was with the Rebels’ first-year coach Hugh Freeze for a year at Arkansas State, has thrown eight interceptions, seven in losses to Texas, Alabama, and A&M.
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson has thrown five interceptions, all of them in three losses.
Throwing the ball away or even taking a loss is preferable to pitching it to an opponent and fifth-year senior Wilson should have the edge over redshirt sophomore Wallace when it comes to being wise.
Improvement on defense is encouraging to Arkansas fans, but both Auburn and Kentucky are inept on offense so the 14 points scored by those teams is misleading. In Arkansas’ favor is the return of tight end Chris Gragg and the fact that cornerback Tevin Mitchel is fully recovered. The bye weeks also helped a couple of Ole Miss athletes plagued with back injuries.
The suspicion is that both the Rebels and the Razorbacks will score, maybe four or more touchdowns each. Ole Miss has given up 30 or more in its losses and scored 28 or more in its victories.
If those numbers hold true, there is a window for Arkansas 31, Ole Miss 27. As usual, much will depend on Wilson and the defense.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.