This is very quietly one of the biggest games in recent Ole Miss football history. Ole Miss and Auburn are ranked No. 4 and No. 3, respectively, in the newest College Football Playoff poll, setting Vaught-Hemingway Stadium up with its first ever game between top-5 teams. With both the Rebels and Tigers having suffered a loss on the year, Saturday's contest is effectively a play-in game for the playoff. One of the country's top offenses is visiting the home of football's best defense. And yet Oxford's relatively quiet and fan enthusiasm is pretty tempered.
Blame it on a letdown loss to LSU last weekend and a cashing in of emotional capital during the Alabama weekend, both of which have fans of what is one of the country's best football teams holding back their excitement. Well that should stop ... now. The Landsharks, while dinged up, are still fast, powerful, and able to absolutely deflate powerful offenses by forcing turnovers. Bo Wallace, while probably a little bit crazy, is still big-armed enough to get the ball to the Rebels' damn good receivers. The Ole Miss offensive line is, uh, it's there. And Hugh Freeze is still a coach that has proven that he's able to win against good SEC teams, even when outmanned.
The Rebels have a good shot to win this game and shouldn't be taken lightly, either by the visiting Tigers or by their own home fans. So get excited and get loud, and whether you're an Ole Miss optimist or pessimist, a few afternoon Bourbon drinks under the shade of the Grove's oaks will definitely turn you into a fervent, irrational enthusiast.
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
How to watch
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. CT
Online streaming: WatchESPN.com
Radio: Ole Miss Football Radio Network
Auburn's season so far
Record: 6-1 (3-1 SEC)
- Arkansas - W 45-21
- San Jose State - W 59-13
- at No. 20 Kansas State - W 20-14
- Louisiana Tech - W 45-17
- No. 15 LSU - W 41-7
- at No. 3 Mississippi State - L 38-23
- South Carolina - W 42-35
3 things to watch
Auburn running game
There's a conception out there that LSU's power run game exposed a weakness in the Ole Miss defense, and that Auburn's run-heavy attack will be able to exploit it. What that line of reasoning ignores, however, is that Auburn and LSU's running attacks are very different.
LSU uses two-back, power sets to jackhammer away at the interior; Auburn uses spread formations to thin the defense and attack the edges with the read-option. While Gus Malzahn's offense will certainly go up the middle, it's all set up by threatening the perimeter.
The Rebel defense should find success against Auburn's run game for the same reason they had trouble with LSU's: they're undersized but lightening fast. With defensive linemen and linebackers that excel at lateral movement (Denzel Nkemdiche will be missed) and corners and safeties that can tackle in space, Dave Wommack's bunch is, theoretically at least, ideal for stopping Auburn's offense.
Ole Miss O-line vs. Auburn pass rush
Thinned by injuries to starting center Ben Still and shoe-in All-SEC left tackle Laremy Tunsil, the Rebel offensive front had a tough night in Baton Rouge. Fortunately for them, Auburn's defensive line is nowhere near as formidable. The Tigers rank second to last in the SEC with 12 sacks and ninth in tackles for loss. If the O-line can give Wallace some time, he could have a bounce-back game against a secondary surrendering the conference's second-most passing yards per game.
Tunsil was back at practice this week and appears ready to go Saturday. Ben Still, however, suffered a setback late in the week and probably won't make the start. That means Robert Conyers, who struggled picking up interior blitzes against LSU, will be snapping the ball.
First down play calling
Excluding the final drive of the game, the Rebels ran the ball on nine of their 11 first down plays in the second half against LSU, resulting in a predictable, inept offense that didn't make it into the red zone once. Even Wallace complained, suggesting earlier this week that the offense should throw more on first and second down.
The thinking behind Freeze's conservative play calling is sound: he's protecting a turnover-prone quarterback and leaning on a dominant defense. But with the running game as bad as it is, at some point you're just going to have to open up the playbook and live and die with Bo. That's never been more true than this week against an Auburn team averaging nearly 40 points per game.
Auburn is holding opponents to 3.37 yards per carry on the season, so don't expect a breakthrough on the ground. Combine that with their shortcomings in pass defense and this matchup begs Freeze to attack through the air on early downs.
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