Granted, the University of Central Arkansas may be catching Ole Miss at the right time — right off the bat.
Granted the Rebels won two games last season, are rated one of the weakest, if not the weakest, team in their conference and face some major tweaks and rebuilding in coach Hugh Freeze’s debut.
But in talking about the Rebels, UCA coach Clint Conque underscores two words: Southeastern Conference.
“Ole Miss has SEC-caliber football players,” Conque said. “And they have some players other SEC schools wanted and the group they will put out first are pretty good players.”
“Remember, Ole Miss is just two years removed from back-to-back Cotton Bowl appearances.”
There is a 20-plus difference in scholarship players.
And Conque thinks that could play into preparation before the teams hit the field.
“All of their signees have stars (by recruiting services); not many of our players have stars,” Conque told the Conway Kiwanis Club this week. “That means they have future SEC players running their scout teams.
“Because of that, it’s hard for us to simulate the speed of the game and the fast pace in which they (the Rebels) like to play. Things go slower for us against our scout team because we’re using cards. Depth in the scout teams is where some of the scholarship difference can show up. Every day in practice, their varsity is going against future SEC players. We have good players; we don’t have future SEC players.
“I think we will adjust to the pace, but the first five to seven minutes will be very critical.”
The Bears faced Hugh Freeze’s offense and Dave Womack’s defense and the torrid offensive pace during last year’s 53-24 defeat to Arkansas State.
That ASU team was probably better than the one Freeze inherited in Houston Nutt’s wake.
The Rebels’ offense is significantly different and more wide open than what they ran under Nutt. Womack has an attacking defense that normally uses a lot of man coverage, not unlike what the Bears normally face against Sam Houston State.
“We’re kind of jumping back and forth in video work,” Conque said. “We’re looking at Arkansas State’s schemes, then we look at Ole Miss’ personnel and how they might fit into those schemes.”
With the prospect of playing before a crowd that could approach 65,000, Conque knows his team will be a decided underdog by most pundits.
But some Ole Miss supporters are worried about a trap game in the season opener. It may not be a picnic. It could be highly competitive. It could get very interesting if the Bears can get into the fourth quarter within striking distance as is the plan.
“I don’t mind being the underdog,” Conque said. “The key is to play loose, let everything hang out and have fun.”
With some players, particularly in the offensive line, making their first collegiate start against Ole Miss, it could be easier said than done.
But in his 13 seasons at UCA, Conque’s teams have a history of playing upper-division teams tough.
The Rebels are as upper-division (SEC) in college football as they come.
Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org