FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas center Travis Swanson felt a little uneasy Saturday.
He understood the benefits of the bye week, getting a long-awaited chance to catch his breath and prepare for the final five-game push. But after the Razorbacks put together two straight wins against Auburn and Kentucky, Swanson said he and the rest of his teammates didn’t want to be spectators last week.
“It was kind of frustrating for Saturday to be just kind of sitting around, not playing a game and watching all the other games going on,” Swanson said.
“So I knew we would be happy to get back out there (Sunday).”
Arkansas (3-4, 2-2 in Southeastern Conference), which is trying to recover from one of the program’s worst starts this season, re-emerged from its off week Sunday and continued preparation for the next test against Ole Miss (4-3, 1-2) in Little Rock.
Players and coaches are carrying much-needed confidence into the week after surviving the blow from a 1-4 start behind a pair of wins. While it came against two teams still searching for their first wins in SEC play in 2012, Arkansas coach John L. Smith said the performances have been a catalyst in his team’s recovery.
“I think we’re a much more confident football team without a doubt than we were early on,” Smith said. “I think we’re gaining confidence kind of daily. So it’s good. …
“It’s more like a sense of we’re back to where we think we should’ve been, you know? We’ve kind of got our swagger back a little bit.”
Arkansas is hoping it still shows against Ole Miss, which also is trying to maintain momentum after collecting a big win before its bye week.
The Rebels, who aren’t among the SEC’s upper echelon at this point, have plenty in common with the Razorbacks at this point: Ole Miss earned its first SEC win against Auburn on Oct. 13. It was a win that ended the Rebels’ 16-game SEC losing streak and became the program’s first league win under new coach Hugh Freeze.
So Freeze was asked last week if he thought Ole Miss’ bye week came at a good time after ending the program’s SEC drought. He had mixed feelings about it as well.
“I feel that way 90 percent of the time, then 10 percent of the time you feel like, ‘Man, I wish we could back out there,’” Freeze said last week. “But that doesn’t take me long because when I see our team, because in practice (last Tuesday) we probably had 10 guys that were limited or out of practice.
“With our depth issues, we’ve been fortunate to not be without some key guys in any of our games. But we’re so thin at certain spots. I think it’s come at a good time and hopefully we can get every one pretty healthy for the stretch run.”
The Ole Miss-Arkansas game isn’t a do-or-die for either team in regard to bowl eligibility, but the winner will move a step closer to the postseason Saturday.
There’s no doubt it would be a big accomplishment for an Ole Miss program that hasn’t been a bowl since 2009. Arkansas didn’t exactly envision a fight to the six-win mark when this season began, but would be satisfied if it could get there now.
“Hopefully everybody just stays hungry,” Arkansas receiver Cobi Hamilton said. “I think everybody knows what this team is capable of doing when we’re doing the right things and doing the little things at the right time. I think everybody’s excited. I know Ole Miss, they’re going to be excited. They’re on the same roll as us.”
Smith credited his players for making it happen at Arkansas. He said the recent success stems from Arkansas’ determination to press on through the early-season disappointment to show everyone “we’re a good football team.”
The Razorbacks have shown improvement the past two games in areas that were its biggest weaknesses in the losses. The ground game took steps in the right direction against Auburn and Kentucky. Arkansas’ defense enjoyed some success, too, after being torn apart by opponents during the first five games.
“There is nothing like getting your juices flowing and knowing that you can be more confident now that you’ve got a few wins behind you,” Arkansas defensive tackle Alfred Davis said. “I think our guys understand that we are in a great position right now coming off two big wins in the SEC. I think it will carry over.”
Swanson said Arkansas — after having to wait and watch patiently during its bye week — will get a chance to prove it against Ole Miss on Saturday.
“We were a very highly touted team coming into the season and we had a little slump in the beginning,” Swanson said. “Hopefully we have figured it out. We just want to show everyone that we are the team that we said we would be.”