A matchup against a 1-4 basement dweller wouldn't usually warrant the label "biggest test of the season," especially if it falls three weeks after a road trip to the number one ranked team in the country. But that's exactly what Hugh Freeze and his Ole Miss Rebels will face this Saturday when the last place Auburn Tigers pull into Oxford.
With the Tigers arrives the most pressure-packed game of Freeze's young career. Sure, the Rebels have already squared off with perennial powerhouses #15 Texas and #1 Alabama this season, but that was pressure akin to what the Washington Generals feel when they step on the court. Six point favorites going into the weekend, Ole Miss will be expected to win against Auburn.
While this marks the fourth time the Vegas line has favored Ole Miss this season, the other three contests came against an FCS school, a team that hadn't won a bowl game since before the Nixon administration, and a Tulane squad that may very well be the worst team in Division I college football. While these matchups could, in theory, be termed "must wins," they are the types of games that are only meaningful if you lose them. Auburn, despite struggling through historic lows, is nonetheless an SEC opponent, and would be a huge prize for a program suffering through a 16 game conference losing streak.
The fervor to snap that losing streak will be at a fever pitch following the Rebels' gut-wrenching loss to Texas A&M last Saturday, a game which turned on Freeze's controversial 4th-and-inches play call late in the 4th quarter. A refreshing SEC win would go a long way in washing the sour taste of the Aggie loss out of the Rebels' collective pallet.
Adding to the pressure is the mounting hope that Freeze can lead Ole Miss to a post-season berth for the first time since the '09 season. A pipe dream for even the most optimistic fan at the beginning of the year, the progression the team has shown under it's new head coach has made bowl eligibility a tangible goal for the Rebels, who, at 3-3, are already halfway to the necessary six wins. That all hinges on the game against Auburn, however. With Texas replacing a usually soft non-conference opponent in an already brutal SEC schedule, the Rebels are left with three reasonably winnable games on their slate: Auburn, Arkansas and Vanderbilt, with the possible addition of arch-rival Mississippi State. In terms of bowl eligibility, this is the first must-win game of Freeze's Ole Miss career.
No aircraft-drawn banners will soar above Vaught-Hemingway stadium if Freeze loses to Auburn. No full-page ads calling for the coach's head will be taken out in the Oxford Eagle. In fact, any shortcomings whatsoever during Freeze's 2012 campaign will be readily (and rightfully) attributed to the mismanagement of the previous regime. The tremors of a loss to Auburn could, however, be enough to reopen some of the fissures of doubt that that initially splintered the Rebel community following Freeze's somewhat controversial hiring. On the other hand, a win could get him one step closer to a bowl appearance and solidifying the loyalty of a fan base desperate for a winning team. Either way, Saturday's showdown with Auburn promises to be a pivotal point in Freeze's season, if not his Ole Miss career.