Hugh Freeze has never faced this type of setback before. For four years his program has trended neatly upwards, adding one win every season since he took over in 2012. Sure, last season's loss to Memphis was a trying time—that loss appeared to have squandered a window of Playoff opportunity that at the time seemed destined to close with the departures of Nkemdiche, Treadwell and Tunsil—but a very talented team rallied for a trip to the Sugar Bowl and the steady incline continued.
Consecutive losses to Arkansas and LSU the last two weeks ensured that pattern won't continue this season. At best (including a bowl win), the Rebs can finish two games below their 10-win 2015 season. More realistically, they could drop games to Auburn and Texas A&M and limp into a bowl game at 6-6. Factor in the looming cloud of NCAA justice and the resulting hit to recruiting (Ole Miss' 2017 class currently ranks No. 43 and is hemorrhaging defensive talent), and this is easily the most adversity Freeze has faced in Oxford.
All of which underscores the importance of Saturday's home game against Auburn, which has emerged as an unexpected power in the West after outscoring Mississippi State and Arkansas by a combined 94-17 in consecutive weeks. A win would bring much-needed stability and provide hope for a resilient finish. A loss could mean going into a tailspin Ole Miss can't pull out of.
How to watch
When: 6:15 p.m. CT
TV: SEC Network
Online streaming: WatchESPN
3 questions that will decide the game
1. Can the Rebs prevent big plays on the ground?
Here's what we wrote earlier this week about Ole Miss' struggling run defense:
Last week, an outstanding but somewhat hobbled Leonard Fournette picked up an incredible 194 yards before contact thanks largely to the linebackers' inability to plug running lanes. Fournette averaged 30.9 yards per carry on runs that made it to the second level.
Fournette is an exceptional back, of course, but this problem goes beyond the game in Baton Rouge. Ole Miss has allowed teams to gain 5 or more yards on 42.6 percent of their runs, 105th worst in the country. The Rebels defense ranks 108th in rushes of 20-plus yards allowed (15) and 101st in rushing isoPPP (a measure of explosiveness).
Auburn doesn't have the most explosive run game (66th in rushing isoPPP), but one of the SEC's sturdiest offensive lines has combined with the one-two punch of Kamryn Pettway (5.9 yards per carry) and Kerryon Johnson (5.1) to form the 18th most efficient run game in the country. There's no way around it: Auburn is going to move the ball on the ground come Saturday. The Rebel defense just has to make sure that yardage doesn't come in back-breaking bunches like it did in Baton Rouge.
2. Can Sean White make Ole Miss pay for focusing on the run?
Remember in early September when we were all laughing at Auburn's three-headed quarterback mess? Yea, they got that sorted out just fine.
Not only has White taken firm control of the starting gig, he's become the SEC's most efficient QB, leading the league in passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt. He's protecting the football (he has just two picks), but this isn't just some check-down, game-manager stuff—White is using a surprisingly effective deep ball to keep defenses from selling out against Auburn's rushing attack. Nineteen percent of his completions have gone for 20 yards or more, a rate almost identical to that of Chad Kelly.
White torched Ole Miss with big plays last season, and he'll do it again if the Rebels' young safeties spend too much time peeking into the backfield or biting on screen fakes. Case in point:
Auburn keeps breaking early-season tendencies to hit big plays, like this long pass from Sean White to Tony Stevens. pic.twitter.com/vPJSPFkwfV— WarRoomEagle (@WarRoomEagle) October 13, 2016
3. Can Ole Miss protect its offensive tackles by staying out of obvious passing downs?
Rod Taylor suffered a high ankle sprain in Baton Rouge, which means there's a good chance five-star freshman Greg Little will make his first career start. Little has all of the physical tools you need, but his inexperience showed last week when he was burned for two sacks in the span of three plays.
Complicating things are Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and the rest of Auburn's monstrous defensive line, a group that, as Hugh Freeze pointed out earlier this week, "you cannot afford to get behind the chains on." Auburn is 10th in the nation in passing-downs sack rate, meaning Ole Miss will need to have success on early downs to keep Lawson and Co. from pinning their ears back. The problem is that Auburn also ranks 15th in the country in defensive efficiency, i.e. keeping teams off schedule.
Projections and predictions
Vegas: As of Friday morning, Bovada’s latest line has Auburn by 5.
F&P+: Bill C.’s numbers give Auburn a 64 percent chance of winning with a projected margin of 6.4 points.
FPI: ESPN’s advanced metrics give Auburn an 57.3 percent chance of winning.
RCR’s pick ‘em panel: eight of 11 of us picked Auburn to cover the spread.
My pick: Having gotten this far in what probably seems like a very pessimistic preview, you probably expect me to pick Auburn here—indeed, the numbers very much support that prediction. But I'm going against the numbers. Despite its glaring deficiencies, this is still a very dangerous Ole Miss offense, one that I can't see struggling for a third consecutive game. An underrated Rebel run game does just enough to protect Greg Little, who in turn protects Chad Kelly, who in turn breaks out for a monster game. The beleaguered defense gives up a lot of yards on the ground but makes enough plays to preserve a 41-38 Ole Miss win.
Either that or Auburn wins by three touchdowns.