Did Lane Kiffin Auburn speculation distract Ole Miss football in Arkansas loss?
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Ole Miss football took a finishing blow to its already dwindling New Year's Six bowl hopes on Saturday with a 42-27 loss to Arkansas.
The Rebels (8-3, 4-3 SEC) managed over 700 yards of total offense but didn't score their first touchdown until the fourth quarter against the Razorbacks (6-5, 3-4). They turned it over three times for the first time since the season opener and their defense was gashed from the onset by the Arkansas running game.
Here are three unanswered questions from the defeat.
Was Ole Miss distracted by speculation regarding Lane Kiffin's future?
The Rebels looked listless in the first half. They allowed 35 Arkansas points — the most in a half since Ole Miss' game against the Razorbacks last season.
The Ole Miss defense was shredded by the Arkansas run game to the tune of 205 yards. The offense gave the ball away twice and managed to come away with just six points in the half despite 300 yards of total offense.
With that in mind, quarterback Jaxson Dart and safety AJ Finley were asked whether the speculation regarding coach Lane Kiffin's future might have caused a distraction in the leadup to the game.
Both said that it hadn't really played a part.
"Obviously we see it, but I don't think it's really been that much of a factor for us this week," Finley said.
"You hear it," Dart added. "It's out there. It's pretty blatant. You hear things, but I think that our guys have tried to do a good job of just trying to stay focused, not let it get to our heads, just control what we can control."
Was there a hangover from Alabama week?
When he was asked whether his job status might have been a distraction, Kiffin instead pivoted to talking about the impact of Alabama hangovers, pointing toward a close game that SEC West champion LSU had played in Fayetteville last week despite the Razorbacks lining up without star QB KJ Jefferson.
"There's a lot of analytics about Alabama hangovers," Kiffin said. "Just ask LSU that. Came in here last week and scored 13 points against these guys. Maybe there was some of that."
Perhaps the Razorbacks and their physical nature under coach Sam Pittman are uniquely positioned to take advantage of that. Ole Miss has played Arkansas immediately after taking on Alabama in all three of Kiffin's seasons at the helm. The Rebels are now 1-2 in those games, with the lone win coming in a 52-51 thriller last season in which the Razorbacks failed a two-point conversion attempt with no time on the clock.
Matt Luke was 2-1 after playing Alabama in his tenure, but those wins came against Vanderbilt and Kent State.
Hugh Freeze was 3-2 after playing the Tide, including wins over No. 14 Texas A&M and No. 12 Georgia.
What did Kiffin have to say about the officiating?
After some controversy in the loss to Alabama, Ole Miss fans once again loudly voiced their displeasure regarding the officials against the Razorbacks. The Rebels had 116 penalty yards relative to 61 for Arkansas.
Perhaps the officiating is worth some discussion after the Rebels saved face a bit late to turn a 29-point embarrassment into a 15-point loss. Ole Miss had two touchdowns chalked off the board due to penalties. (Arkansas had one too, but the Razorbacks went on to score on that drive anyway.)
Kiffin's postgame criticism of the officials wasn't as spirited as it was last week, but he did share an interaction he had with one of the referees after a holding call against Micah Pettus negated a 33-yard touchdown pass on fourth down from Dart to Dayton Wade. The Rebels were forced to punt on the next play.
"It's really crushing when we get what they called holding on the first touchdown pass," Kiffin said. "I tried to ask, I don't understand how it could be holding because they said it was after the play that (Pettus) finished the guy. So, not really holding. Then we get another holding on another touchdown pass. Obviously, critical penalties to take 14 points off the board."
Kiffin said he told his players that those penalty problems, along with a minus-3 turnover differential offered a perfect "recipe to not win."
David Eckert covers Ole Miss for the Clarion Ledger. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter @davideckert98.