FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - John L. Smith likes the change he has seen from Arkansas the last few weeks.
The Razorbacks coach has enjoyed the much-needed two straight wins, but more than that he has seen an emotional rebound from what could have been a season-crushing, four-game losing streak.
"Yeah, we've kind of got our swagger back a little bit and our confidence is good," Smith said. "Our energy has always been good...That's what has pulled us through all the tough times. They're well-trained. They know what to do."
The wins have served to remind the Razorbacks (3-4, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) that they entered the season as a preseason top 10 team, ripe with championship expectations.
The title hopes are gone, but Arkansas still has its sights set on a fourth straight bowl game and will look for another strong performance on Saturday against Mississippi (4-3, 1-2) in Little Rock.
The team's free fall from the national rankings to SEC also-ran began on Sept. 8 - also in Little Rock - when then-No. 8 Arkansas suffered a stunning overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Quarterback Tyler Wilson missed the second half and overtime of that game with a concussion, one in which the Razorbacks led 28-7 midway through the third quarter before falling 34-31.
"Now I feel like we need to go back and redeem ourselves," Razorbacks defensive tackle Alfred Davis said. "Go back and defend the Rock like we have done in the past and just get our fans pumped about it, get ourselves pumped about it. Because that is our other home, and you always want to win in your own backyard."
The Rebels are simply after another win in their season of resurgence under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. They snapped a 16-game SEC losing streak their last time out, a 41-20 win over Auburn, and are two wins away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2009.
Sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace passed for, ran for and caught a touchdown in that win, Ole Miss' first in the conference since Oct. 2, 2010. For a school that was a combined 6-18 the last two seasons, including 1-15 in the SEC under former coach Houston Nutt, the win was another reminder of how far it's come under Freeze in a short time.
The Rebels are fourth in the league in total offense, averaging 440.7 yards per game, and they've shown an opportunistic defense at times - including forcing six turnovers in a 30-27 loss to Texas A&M.
Arkansas is tied for last in the SEC in turnover margin at minus 10, though it didn't commit a turnover its last time out - a weather-shortened 49-7 win over Kentucky two weeks ago. Wilson threw for 372 yards and a career-high five touchdowns in the win, and Freeze expects to see more of the same from the Razorbacks, who led the league in total offense and points last season.
"You look at what Arkansas is averaging offensively and no one has really stopped them," Freeze said.
"They've hurt themselves at time. When Wilson is healthy and has played, they're very difficult to stop. We have to be very good at not allowing big plays. We have to be very stingy in the red zone. They're going to get their opportunities."
The Razorbacks have lost several key players on both sides of the ball to season-ending injuries, including linebackers Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright. However, they'll receive a boost on offense against Ole Miss when tight end Chris Gragg returns from a bone bruise he suffered in a loss to Rutgers on Sept. 22.
Arkansas hasn't missed a bowl game since 2008, former coach Bobby Petrino's first season. Petrino was fired in April after revelations he hired his mistress to a position in the athletic department, and initially lying about her presence during an April 1 motorcycle accident, and Smith was hired on an interim basis to keep the program together in the wake of the scandal.
The Razorbacks won the Cotton Bowl over Kansas State last season, and they played in the Sugar Bowl the season before that - combining to go 21-5 over the two-year span. They hoped to contend for the SEC championship entering this season, but they'll take a third straight win and a return to .500 at this point.
"It's very important because you don't want to get on a roll to something good and then have a hiccup, take a step back," Davis said. "I feel like we just need to keep moving forward, no steps back at all."
Ole Miss would love nothing more than to keep moving forward as well.
"I'm expecting them to play their best game," Wallace said. "Their backs are kind of against the wall and they're trying to become bowl eligible just like we are. It's going to be a shootout and we definitely have to play for 60 minutes."
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