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Ole Miss vs. Auburn 2015: Forget the revenge story line, there's plenty more at stake for the Rebels

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Here's an in-depth game preview that makes no mention of fumbles or broken bones.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Before we get too far, let's establish that we're not going to talk about last year's Auburn game.

Throw out all of the revenge story lines and bulletin board material so we can focus on what this game really is: a matchup between one ridiculously talented but maddeningly inconsistent team that's trying to pull back into the SEC West race and another shockingly disappointing team that's trying to salvage the wreckage of what it thought would be a conference championship run. With 6-2 Ole Miss clinging to distant Playoff hopes and 4-3 Auburn already nursing three division losses, this is a far cry from last season's elite showdo...

I said we're not talking about last year's Auburn game.

But the lights of Ole Miss' division title hopes haven't flicked off yet. The only good thing about losing to Memphis is that it doesn't count towards the SEC West standings. In the eyes of the SEC, the Rebs sit just behind LSU (and in front of Bama) with one conference loss. The chances of a two-loss team earning a Playoff bid is a conversation for another time -- for now all you need to know is that Ole Miss still controls its own destiny when it comes to Atlanta. And wouldn't it be nice to stick a dagger in Auburn after last season's...

I SAID WE'RE NOT TALKING ABOUT LAST YEAR'S AUBURN GAME.

But that all goes out the window if the Rebs trip up on the road against an Auburn team that, despite that awful start, has looked increasingly competent. Two weeks ago the Tigers took down a Kentucky team that came into the game 4-1, then took Arkansas to the brink in a four-overtime thriller last Saturday. Freshman quarterback Sean White is finding a groove, running back Peyton Barber is looking unstoppable and a slowly improving pass rush might be getting Carl Lawson back.

Let's take a deeper dive into the matchup.

Four neat stats

  1. Auburn freshman quarterback Sean White has thrown exactly zero touchdowns in four games. But don't be misled -- he's been a major improvement over Jeremy Johnson because of better accuracy and better decision making. Johnson completed 59.7 percent of his attempts and threw a pick every 12 passes. White is completing passes at a 63.9 percent clip and has thrown just one pick in 97 attempts.
  2. But White's mostly stuck to high-percentage passes and hasn't been able to open up the offense. Auburn is third to last in the country in plays (run or pass) of 20-plus yards and is also third to last in Football Outsiders' IsoPPP, a metric of explosiveness.
  3. But here's what Auburn does well: run the dang ball when it needs to. Thanks to 5'11, 225-pound bulldozer Peyton Barber (nine of his 12 touchdowns have come from inside the three yard-line) the Tigers are converting 77.1 percent of their short-yardage opportunities (20th in the country) and are second in the SEC in red zone touchdown percentage (67.9). In short, they're the anti-Ole Miss.
  4. But, hey, how 'bout that Rebel running game? After averaging a horrific 2.69 yards per carry against Bama, Vandy, Florida and Memphis, Ole Miss opened it up for a healthy 4.5 yards per carry against A&M. Was it the Tunsil effect or was it just A&M's awful run defense? Either way, Auburn is even worse -- the Tigers are giving up 4.9 yards per carry, which ranks one spot below the Aggies at 13th in the league.

Three bros to keep an eye on

  1. Carl Lawson's status is, as of Thursday night, still up in the air. Auburn has been without its best edge rusher since he went down with a hip injury in the season opener, but he's been practicing this week and could end up seeing the field. That'd be huge for an Auburn pass rush that's been woefully inept without him: collectively, Tigers have the second fewest sacks in the league and, individually, they only have one guy (Casanova McKinzy) in double digits. But even if Lawson is back, the Great Wall of Tunsil should curtail his impact.
  2. Jonathan Jones' line about Laquon Treadwell being "a regular receiver" sure made for great clickbait, but when put into context, it wasn't so much a slight against Quon as it was a cliched insistence that Jones' preparation wasn't going to change this week. So no, Jones shouldn't be worried about Treadwell because of some bulletin board motivational horseshit. He should be worried about Treadwell because Treadwell has gone over 100 yards receiving in four of his last five games. Ok fine, that quip might earn Jones one of these:

    treadwell pancake gif

  3. Breeland Speaks has been flat out dominant while filling in for a concussed Robert Nkemdiche the last two games, so don't expect the freshman defensive tackle to wander back to the sidelines now that Big Rob is healthy. If Rebel D-coordinator Dave Wommack has any sense in his head (and he does), he'll make sure Speaks and Nkemdiche spend plenty of time together on the field, which could be key in stopping Peyton Barber and Auburn's power run.

Two questions that need answers

  1. Is Auburn nursing a hangover? Nah, I don't mean tried-to-go-shot-for-shot-with-Andy-Kennedy-at-the-Library hungover. I mean went-through-four-overtime-periods-against-Arkansas'-pounding-ground-attack hungover. The Hogs ran 49 times against Auburn's lackluster front, which could soften things up for what we hope is a new-and-improved Rebel running game. The week after Jacksonville State took Auburn to OT earlier this season, Leonard Fournette ran for a career-high 228 yards. But pump the brakes a tad, body blow theorists: since 2011, teams that have gone to three or more overtimes are actually 21-17 in their next game. (That excludes the two OT games last week and three bowl games.)
  2. Are the Landsharks back? After increasingly poor performances against Bama (the second half at least), Florida and Memphis, the Ole Miss defense got back on track against A&M, holding them to just 192 yards of total offense. The most promising aspect of that outing was remarkably improved play in the secondary. The optimist in me says that a crew that's had to shuffle around a good bit is finally adjusting to new roles. They'll of course benefit from the backfield ruckus that Robert Nkemdiche's return will generate, but they might also have Tony Conner back on the field.

One hopefully correct prediction

Ole Miss hasn't won on the road in Auburn since 2003, but I think we can go ahead and throw out historical loss trends in the state of Alabama. Given the Tigers' lousy defense, it's hard to expect their monotonous offense to keep pace with Swag Kelly and the quick-strike Rebels. But if there is a recipe for an upset, I think it looks like this:

  • The Rebs' ground success against A&M turns out to be a flash in the pan and Auburn's run defense plays well enough to force Ole Miss to be one-dimensional.
  • Carl Lawson plays and sparks a revitilized pass rush, which gets to Kelly enough to force a few turnovers.
  • Robert Nkemdiche is less than 100 percent and Peyton Barber is able to control the pace on the ground.
  • A close game and a reliable running attack keeps Sean White from having to worry about making big plays.

But I don't see much of that happening. I'll take the Rebs to cover the six-point spread with a 27-17 win.