Sunday October 16th, 2016

What else did you expect?

After a thrilling overtime game between these two teams last season, complete with a miraculous conversion on fourth-and-25 thanks to a blind lateral, No. 22 Arkansas and No. 12 Ole Miss went down to the wire once again on Saturday night, with the Razorbacks prevailing 34–30.

Both squads came in with quality quarterbacks and suspect defenses, and the game lived up to its offensive promise in the first half before settling into a tenser affair in the second. The Rebels trailed throughout, but Chad Kelly brought them back, and Ole Miss took a 30–27 lead with nine minutes left on Kelly’s 17-yard scramble.

After the teams traded punts, Kelly’s counterpart, Austin Allen, came through in the clutch, leading the Razorbacks down the field for the winning score with 2:20 left on a nifty handoff to receiver Jared Cornelius. Kelly fumbled while running to try to convert on fourth-and-16, sealing Arkansas’s upset. The Razorbacks have now won three straight in this series.

Here are three thoughts on the game:

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1. In familiar story with a twist, Ole Miss can’t hold its lead

The Rebels’ season to this point had been defined by their collapses. They had a 28–6 lead against Florida State in the season opener and quickly relinquished it in the second half; they were up 24–3 on No. 1 Alabama and wasted even less time in giving that advantage up. Both games, of course, ended in losses for Ole Miss.

It happened again Saturday night, just in a different way. Against Arkansas, the Rebels never got up big. Indeed, when they took the lead in the fourth quarter, it was the first (and only) time they went ahead all game. But it ended up being a blown lead nonetheless, with the collapse just compressed into a few minutes.

Because it happened right at the end of the game and because Ole Miss had plenty of chances to seize control for good beforehand, this loss might be even more frustrating. That’s particularly true because the Rebels became unglued in two areas in which they excelled the rest of the game. Arkansas converted just 5 of 16 third-down opportunities overall, but on the Razorbacks’ game-winning drive, Ole Miss allowed a conversion on fourth-and-4 (which was wide open) and third-and-9. And while the Rebels were at their best on the night when they used tempo—Arkansas looked wholly unprepared to deal with the fast pace for some reason, consistently left off-balance and out of position—when they needed to go fast on their final drive, they looked lost. Quincy Adeboyejo dropped a pass, Kelly took a sack, the offensive line false-started and Kelly couldn’t even get a pass off on the final play.

Credit Arkansas for closing well, but just like its other two losses, Ole Miss had its chances and couldn’t get it done.

Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

2. Arkansas is what it is, but this is still a good sign of progress

After the Razorbacks couldn’t hang with a resurgent Texas A&M team and proved unable to match up with the juggernaut that is Alabama, we learned that they weren’t ready to break into the upper tier of the SEC this season, despite hinting to that potential early in the year (and at the end of the past couple seasons). The defense has too many weak spots and is too inconsistent. The offensive line can’t protect talented quarterback Austin Allen enough, and the running game, despite showing potential, isn’t at an optimal level for a Bret Bielema-coached team.

Nevertheless, Arkansas showed some positive signs in getting the win over Ole Miss, and there’s no reason it can’t end up one of the top teams in that group just below the elite of the conference. The defense was still far from perfect Saturday night, but when it wasn’t getting put in bad spots by Ole Miss’s tempo—which falls at Bielema’s feet, since the unit should have been better prepared for that—it showed improvement. Holding the Rebels to three-and-outs on their final two possessions was clutch. Perhaps more importantly, the offensive line played much better. It looked much improved in pass protection, allowing Allen to make the high-caliber downfield throws he’s capable of when he has time, and it paved the way for an excellent night on the ground, as Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley combined for 245 yards on 38 carries.

The question is whether the defense and O-line can continue to get better the rest of the way. With Arkansas’s toughest games now behind it, that’s a very reasonable goal.

• NIESEN: The SEC has a quarterback problem

3. Ole Miss’s SEC West, New Year’s Six dreams all but extinguished

Even after falling to Alabama, the Rebels had faint hopes they could still win the SEC West and go to Atlanta. They had to win out (beating LSU and Texas A&M on the road along the way), have the Aggies knock off the Tide (somewhat feasible) and have Alabama drop another game as well, perhaps to LSU (essentially a prayer).

Now that it has two losses, Ole Miss can kiss its division hopes goodbye, barring college football chaos of a biblical degree. And a return to a New Year’s Six bowl is likely out of the question, too, even if it wins out, with that additional loss to Florida State hurting its résumé. Texas A&M or whoever wins the East division is more likely to get a bid.

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