Auburn is the defending champion of the Southeastern Conference, and was less than a minute away from winning a national title in Gus Malzahn’s first season as Auburn’s head coach.Ole Miss is 7-1 for the first time in many years, and is in the top 10 nationally for the first time since the early stages of the 2009 season.
Although the Rebels lost their first game last Satruday against LSU at venerable Tiger Stadium, all is not lost for coach Hugh Freeze and the Rebels. With a win against Auburn–which would be their first since 2012, Freeze’s first season, Ole Miss could set themselves up for the potential to have a special season in Freeze’s third year as Ole Miss’ head coach.
Here are five things to look for as the Rebels and Tigers prepare to meet Saturday at 6 p.m. at Vaught-Hemingway. ESPN will televise this matchup.
1. The Rebels defense against the Tigers offense
Both coaches–Freeze and Malzahn–are proponents of the spread offense, although Auburn’s version favors the run more prominently. A solid running game has been a staple at Auburn for many years. Remember Joe Cribbs, Bo Jackson, Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams? This season, Cameron Artis-Payne has seen plenty of chances to showcase his skill. So far, he’s averaged over 118 yards a game, making him the third leading rusher in the Southeastern Conference. Quarterback Nick Marshall has been averaging over 96 yards running.
This will be a challenge to the Rebel defense, who has averaged giving up 10.5 points a game, and only eight touchdowns through eight games. Although LSU ran roughshod over the Ole Miss defense last Saturday in Baton Rouge–over 250 yards for the Tigers–they were only able to muster one touchdown.
It will be an intrguing matchup between the Rebels’ “D” and Auburn’s running game. Granted, Ole Miss will be without linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury which required surgery, there will be others to step up.
2. Bryant, Shackleford will do well filling in
Linebackers Serderius Bryant and Deterrian Shackelford will be more than adequate to step in and fill Denzel’s shoes against Auburn. Both have put together solid games throughout the season, and will again answer the call of defensive coordinator Dave Wommack when the chance presents itself.
3. Ole Miss’ running game needs to step up
The storyline from last week’s debacle in Baton Rouge was that the Ole Miss offense was never able to find any semblance of getting in synch. While the defense came up with four turnovers, the offense didn’t follow through on the opportunities given to them. Granted, LSU’s defense is no laughing matter, and they played a part in causing Ole Miss’ offense to be out of rhythm. What will help Ole Miss will be for the running game to take charge early and often. Jaylen Walton, I’Tavius Mathers and company–even QB Bo Wallace has been known to tuck the ball and run for good yardage–needs to make the most of their chances to help keep Auburn’s offense at bay.
4. Maybe There Is A Flaw in Auburn’s defense??
Last week, albeit a losing effort, South Carolina scored 35 points and gained over 500 yards against Auburn’s defense. If there is a flaw in the Tiger defense, Ole Miss needs to exploit it, and exploit it early and often. The Rebels have as much talent offensively as South Carolina. They need to focus and execute the plays that are called.
5. Put LSU loss in rear view mirror
Perhaps last week’s trip to Baton Rouge was the Rebels’ “bad game” of the season. Every team is entitled to have at least one bad game, and maybe the LSU game can qualify.
Again, Ole Miss should feel good that the powers that be on the College Football Playoff committee saw fit to put them No. 4 in their poll, a spot behind Auburn. In order for the Rebels to get back to the winning form that they had the previous seven weeks, each and every player, coach, fan, whoever has to put the loss to LSU in the rear view mirror. Senior quarterback Bo Wallace and the rest of the Rebels should be glad that they will be in front of the home crowd, which should be more than a strong asset to them.
Wallace needs to regain the spunk and fire that helped the Rebels get to a 7-0 mark. He needs to return to the “Good” Bo and “Effective” Bo that he’d been recently. He and the offensive coaches, as well as coach Freeze, needs to be on the proverbial same page. The defense did all they could last week. The offense needs to regain the form they had against Texas A&M, Tennessee, and maintain it through four full quarters.
Again, the Rebels still have a lot to play for. They still have a chance to have a special season.
It starts against Auburn.