By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Houston Nutt hasn’t roamed Arkansas’ sideline since November of 2007, when nearly every current Razorback was still in high school.
Now in his fourth-year at Ole Miss, Nutt has returned to Fayetteville with his new team twice. He’s faced the Razorbacks three times. And, after winning the first two meetings, Nutt and the Rebels finally suffered their first lost to the Razorbacks last October.
So when the obvious topic — the Razorbacks facing their former coach — was brought up again and again Tuesday, receiver Jarius Wright said the novelty had faded.
"There is no Houston Nutt for us," he said. "It’s beat Ole Miss and beat their team, beat the Rebels this week."
The 10th-ranked Razorbacks (5-1, 1-1 in Southeastern Conference) insist that is their approach when they play at Ole Miss (2-4, 0-3 in SEC) today at 11:21 a.m.
Arkansas, fresh off its bye week, wants to open the second half of the season with a win against a wounded Ole Miss program coming off a 52-7 loss to Alabama. The Rebels have now lost nine straight SEC games dating back to Oct. 2, 2010 and the Razorbacks are expected to run the dubious streak to 10 in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said those expectations, and not the program’s ties to its former coach, will test his team’s maturity as the Razorbacks return to the field.
"It’s all about us," Petrino said. "We want to go out and have our best performance to date. Each player is striving to have their best performance this weekend that they have had all year. ... That’s what our concentration is."
There’s no denying today’s game features programs linked together because of Nutt, who coached at Arkansas from 1998-2007 before an ugly divorce. Both are moving in opposite directions, though, and it has impacted the emotions and intensity around today’s reunion.
Arkansas is 20-5 since the last meeting in Oxford, a game Ole Miss won 30-17 behind an enormous day from running back Dexter McCluster in 2009. The Razorbacks have shown steady progress under Petrino since and earned their best debut in the BCS rankings (No. 9) last week.
"I guess it was different for that first game in (2008), but it’s been three years since then," Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said of today’s meeting. "It’s just another game. We prepare like it’s any other opponent. We take it very seriously and very business-like."
Said receiver Greg Childs: "It’s kind of died down now."
Ole Miss, which went to two straight Cotton Bowl’s under Nutt in 2008 and 2009, is just 10-14 since its last win against Arkansas. The Rebels were 4-8 and failed to reach a bowl game in 2010 and are struggling even more now.
Last week’s loss was the Rebels’ worst since a 49-3 blowout at Florida in 1981. So Nutt and Ole Miss need a win and it doesn’t matter who the opponent is today.
"The first two years it was tough," Nutt said about coaching against the Razorbacks. "Where it’s hard to sleep each night knowing you’re getting ready to go back and play there for the first time or when they came here the second time. But now, a little bit different."
Childs said the Razorbacks know they can’t simply go on "cruise control" despite being heavy favorites to win on the road today, though. Tight end Chris Gragg agreed, saying the Rebels remain a threat despite their struggles because of Nutt’s ability to motivate his teams.
Gragg thinks Nutt will have Ole Miss confident it can knock off the Razorbacks and get its season back on track after some awful outings. So Arkansas must be prepared.
"It does kind of make it more dangerous," Gragg said of Ole Miss’ struggles. "They’ve had guys out. They’ve had guys hurt. We don’t know if they’re healthy. We don’t know if he was resting them just to get them ready for this game. That’s how I look at it."
The rivalry may not carry the same emotions for the teams as they meet for the fourth time since Nutt took over at Ole Miss in 2008. But Arkansas realizes anything can happen and plans to avoid a stunning stumble on the road.
"We know they’re going to come out there and give us their best shot," safety Tramain Thomas said. "We can’t let those guys stick around. We can’t give them any hope."
No. 10 Arkansas (5-1, 1-1 in SEC) vs. Ole Miss (2-4, 0-3 in SEC)
When: 11:21 a.m.
Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.
TV: SEC Network (Conway Corp. channel 7 and 501 in HD)
Radio: Razorback Sports Network (103.7 FM The Buzz)
Satellite Radio: Sirius (Ch. 219), XM (Ch. 199)
Series Record: Arkansas leads 31-25-1
Last Meeting: Arkansas 38, Ole Miss 24 in 2010
Coaches: Arkansas — Bobby Petrino (28-16 in fourth season); Ole Miss — Houston Nutt (24-20 in fourth season)