Ole Miss football: Matt Luke, Rebels cannot lose to Arkansas, or ... I don't even want to think about what would happen
Ole Miss enjoyed a record-setting game Saturday afternoon, much to the delight of the fans in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. En route to demolishing Louisiana-Monroe 70-21, the Rebels set school records for total yards (826) and passing yards (517) in a single game.
Ole Miss fans probably weren’t too surprised by the outcome or the fireworks, because that’s what this team does – destroys bad teams and gets destroyed by good teams.
Now the Rebels find themselves at 4-2, with a matchup against 1-5 Arkansas looming. Believe it or not, it’s actually shaping up to be a must-win game for Matt Luke and the Rebels. Hang on, hear me out.
Admittedly, at this level, every game is “must-win.” In the SEC, no loss is acceptable.
However, different games carry different values. An early nonconference game isn’t as critical as a late conference game. So why is this week’s meeting with the Razorbacks a must-win game for Matt Luke?
Records aside, these programs heading in different directions right now.
Arkansas, like Ole Miss, is also in the first year of a new coach, and at 1-5, losers of 5 straight. You’d think their fan base would be losing their minds right now. Quite the contrary, however. Why? Their team is trending in the right direction and they’re noticeably gaining confidence on the field.
Three weeks ago, they lost to Auburn, but in the process they held a top-10 team in the country to just 225 yards of offense. Two weeks ago, they lost to No. 22 Texas A&M, but with more than a minute left in the game they were at midfield with the ball in their hands down by just 7. Last week, they lost to No. 1 Alabama, but put up 31 points on the defending champs and compiled more than 400 yards of offense.
They’ve been losing games, but they’ve shown a lot of fight and development in the process. Their offense is getting more efficient. Their defense is gaining confidence. They’re cutting back on penalties and improving their third-down efficiency. The reasons for optimism on the field is also translating off the field, as their recruiting continues to improve as prospects are beginning to see more and more of the vision that Chad Morris is selling. In the last week alone, the Hogs have added two 4-star prospects to their 2019 class, pushing them into the top 20 nationally.
There’s optimism in Fayetteville with the program trending in the right direction. The same cannot be said in Oxford.
The Rebs are 4-2. That’s not a bad record by any stretch. The two losses, to No. 1 Alabama and (then) No. 5 LSU, were to teams easily considered among the best in the country. You’d think that for a program in the first (official) year of a new coach, there’d be some optimism among the fan base and a rosy outlook on the future. However, all is not well among the Ole Miss faithful.
If you were to take a stroll through some of the Ole Miss message boards, you’d find a whole lot of frustration.
It wasn’t that the Rebels lost to Alabama and LSU, because more often than not they lose to those two teams every year. What frustrated fans was that they were completely and utterly destroyed in those games.
The fans know there’s a severe lack of talent on defense, an explainable reason for giving up more points than they can score, but they can’t tolerate how poorly coached the team looked in those two losses.
As I’ve said many times, many of the defensive problems are due to a talent deficiency. That doesn’t excuse penalties, missed tackles, poor pursuit angles, poor fundamentals, etc. That’s on the coaching staff — and ultimately Luke.
And guess what? Beating up on teams like ULM and Kent State doesn’t make fans forget about that stuff, either. Piling up 827 yards against an extremely overmatched ULM defense doesn’t make the 17 penalties against LSU any more tolerable. What they want to see is Ole Miss start playing well (and beating) SEC foes. Which brings us to Arkansas, and why it’s a must-win game for the Rebels.
If the Rebels lose, there’s a very good chance the frustration felt among Ole Miss fans turns from anger to apathy. Ole Miss would be 0-3 in SEC play and fans would take a look at the rest of their schedule and struggle to find where any more wins would come from.
No. 21 Auburn? Unlikely. A very tough South Carolina squad? Unlikely. At No. 22 Texas A&M? Highly unlikely. At Vandy? Maybe, but the ‘Dores always play the Rebels tough and if there’s one defense QB Kyle Shurmur could go off on, it’s Ole Miss. And No. 24 Mississippi State? Yikes. The Bulldogs might rush for 600 yards in that game.
If Ole Miss loses to Arkansas, there’s a very real chance they could lose out the rest of the year, finishing with 6 consecutive losses. Heading into a crucial offseason and recruiting class with absolutely no momentum is the last thing Luke needs if he wants to retain his dream job for any length of time.
This game against Arkansas is arguably the most winnable game for the Rebels the rest of the season.
With a win, the Rebels will gain much needed confidence. Maybe enough confidence to make things interesting the following week, playing at home against an Auburn team that has struggled to move the ball in recent weeks. They could be playing the right team at the right time. If the Rebels somehow win that game and find themselves 6-2 (2-2) heading into November, those losses to ‘Bama and LSU would be practically ancient history.
Given all of that, the Arkansas game is a must-win for Luke. Not because the winner claims a championship or secures a bowl game. We all know Ole Miss isn’t eligible. Not because the winner signs a key recruit or two. But because for the Rebels, it’s a turning point for the rest of the season. Because it could tip the see-saw in one drastic direction or the other. Because it’ll either boost the team heading into the second half of the season or crush their already fragile psyche. Because it’ll either give the fans a reason to show up against Auburn and South Carolina or save themselves the hassle of making the trip to Oxford.
It’s safe to say Matt Luke needs a ‘W’ in Fayetteville on Saturday night.