No. 12 Ole Miss visits No. 22 Arkansas in Fayetteville on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), and it’s reasonable to expect a good game. Both teams have lost to Alabama but mostly looked good other than that, and ranked-versus-ranked SEC games tend to be worthwhile exercises.
But if a hype train gets rolling for the Rebels and Razorbacks beyond their current situations, forgive the conductors of that hype train.
Ole Miss and Arkansas played the best college football game of all of last season (and have another unbelievable game in their recent history), and we’ll all be spoiled if they can give us anything close to an encore this time around.
Last year, Arkansas won in Oxford, 53-52. That undersells the ending.
Nov. 7, 2015. Here’s how Bill Connelly described it, awarding it Best Game of the Year status in a postmortem on the 2015 season:
For a game to be the best of a year in this sport, you need quite a few ingredients: consequence, steady excitement, plot twists, maybe an amazing bounce or two. More than any game except maybe Alabama-Clemson, Ole Miss-Arkansas had each in droves.
The game had all these things. As things unfolded over the following three weeks, an Ole Miss win would’ve also won the SEC West, barring Alabama from Atlanta and drastically altering the national championship.
Tuscaloosa bar commemorates Bielema and the Hogs' victory over Ole Miss with great art https://t.co/sIODQOESi5 pic.twitter.com/pR2gdV0XbN— Arkansas Fight (@ArkansasFight) December 10, 2015
It was consistently close. The game stayed within one score for all 60 minutes, and it involved a series of third- and fourth-down conversions and failures, blocked kicks, and asinine moments. It was a blast.
The most outrageous thing that happened was Arkansas converting a fourth-and-25 to keep itself alive in overtime, on a play your friend might’ve yelled was illegal but definitely wasn’t.
It was one of the most preposterously executed sequences in the history of our sport, and one Ole Miss will see in nightmares for an eternity.
There’s no overstating how awesome (completely dumb) this play was for Arkansas (Ole Miss) fans. We might never see something this awesome (upsetting) again.
The reactions from both sides:
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema: "That's when I think divine intervention did happen. I'm a believer and Hunter's father is a pastor, so I knew it had something to do it as well. He happened to heave it to the tallest guy in the field, who was [6'10 lineman Dan] Skipper, who tapped it to the fastest guy in the field, who was Alex [Collins]."
Arkansas' Hunter Henry, who threw the lateral: "I was on the ground, gradually getting up and kind of watching the play from afar. It was unreal, crazy."
Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram: "I was on the sidelines; it was bad. I just remember it was bad. I jumped out on the field thinking it was over and then kept running. It was just a bad play, bad moment."
Former Ole Miss safety Mike Hilton: "Physically, we were still all right. Mentally, we were just shocked."
Former Ole Miss linebacker C.J. Johnson: "It was just Ole Miss luck for me. It was like, ‘Wow, this is the most Ole Miss thing I've ever seen in my life.'"
After getting this first down, Arkansas scored a game-tying touchdown, went for two, got it, and won a 105-point shootout by a point. The stuff of legend.
We shouldn’t bank on a sequel quite this good, but it should still be fun.
Most of the evidence points to Ole Miss being a notch or two better than Arkansas. The Rebels have a deeper roster and are nearly 20 spots better in the national S&P+ rankings, and Arkansas just received such a painful dropkicking from Alabama that a professor lost his head and started cussing out Bielema, then got arrested.
But Arkansas is playing at home, and the Hogs are the sort of physical bunch that could compete with Ole Miss in the trenches. Chad Kelly and his receivers might have a field day against a pass defense that’s been completely gettable this year, but then again, maybe they won’t. The Rebels are favorites by about a touchdown.
Anything less than an overtime game with nine lead changes and a game-saving flea flicker fumble on fourth-and-25 will be worse than last year’s game. It’s an impossible bar to clear, but please, teams, get as close as you can.