Two months ago, one would have glanced over the Rebels’ 2018 slate and conceded a few guaranteed losses, including Auburn. In a short amount of time, things have changed quite a bit.
Bill Connelly’s projections gave Ole Miss just a 30 percent chance of upsetting the Tigers in Oxford heading into this season. Fast forward to this week, and the Rebels’ win probability has jumped to 47 percent.
Auburn is a mediocre 4-3 after being drubbed by Tennessee at home last weekend. The defense has been dominant, but Gus Malzahn’s offense, which was expected to thrive with an experienced quarterback and loaded receiving corps, is an incredible 97th in offensive S&P+.
On top of the glaring flaws that have popped up on the field for Auburn, the internal turmoil surrounding Malzahn’s employment adds another dimension to Saturday’s tussle. This is all great news for an Ole Miss team looking for a win over a top-tier program, but the Tigers are still favored to win.
Auburn garnered a ton of preseason hype for good reason, and they could very well show some flashes against a plenty-flawed Rebel squad. Still, Ole Miss is probably the team in better spirits heading into this one, and they’re fully capable of coming out 6-2.
Auburn’s defense is as good as advertised, but still vulnerable.
After surprising many with a pair of top-ten defenses his first two years as coordinator, Kevin Steele’s group is sitting at second in defensive S&P+ through seven games this season.
Fueled by a stout defensive line, this squad is disruptive as hell (20th in havoc rate), having effectively cut out the ground game as a viable option for opposing offenses. They’ve knocked teams off schedule, stuffing 26 percent of runs (14th nationally), and have allowed just 41 percent of runs to go for five or more yards (21st). Ole Miss’ backs probably won’t see a ton of opportunities to break off big runs.
That’s not to say they’re without their flaws, as they still somehow rank 99th in IsoPPP, which is Bill C.’s measure of explosiveness. The Tigers have been elite from an efficiency perspective, but the success that offenses have seen — particularly through the air — has gone a long way. Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano averaged nearly 16 yards per completion last Saturday, connecting for gains of 20 or more yards on seven different occasions.
Phil Longo’s offense ranks fourth in IsoPPP, and they should be licking their chops ahead of this matchup. It doesn’t hurt that, as strong as Auburn’s front has been, they’ve struggled a bit in getting after the quarterback, ranking 78th in sack rate. That figure plummets to 99th when just looking at standard downs, encouraging for an Ole Miss offense that loves to throw early, averaging nearly 11 yards per attempt on first down.
We’ll see how much D.K. Metcalf’s season-ending injury changes this group’s ability to generate big plays, as he was leading the Rebels’ trio of starting receivers with nearly 22 yards per catch.
There’s a case to be made that Ole Miss can put up some points, but some droughts are inevitable. The defense will need to limit the damage during those stretches.
Auburn’s offense is broken, but they could magically find their footing Saturday.
The degree to which this group has fallen off in just a year’s time is inexplicable. This group is largely intact from 2017, including quarterback Jarrett Stidham, and while that offense wasn’t prolific (34th in S&P+), they still put up 40 on Georgia last November. The roster turnover they did experience has clearly made an impact, as they lost 50 of 70 starts along the offensive line.
The Tigers’ woes up front have severely limited what this offense can do. Their inability to run the ball is one thing, but it’s dictated a pretty low ceiling for the passing game, too. Defenses haven’t had to respect the run, and as a result Stidham hasn’t thrown for many big gains — Auburn ranks 105th in passing marginal explosiveness. Stidham’s also had to deal with a good amount of pressure on his dropbacks. The two sacks and three hurries he suffered against the Vols may be a bit of an understatement.
The thing is, while Auburn’s troubles on this side of the ball are very real, they aren’t nearly as relevant against an Ole Miss defense that can’t stop anyone. We’ve gone through the same mental exercise when previewing other generally unimpressive offenses, like LSU and Arkansas, and they’ve each had arguably their strongest performances of the year against the Rebels.
As much as this defense has loaded up the box to try and stop the run, they still rank 126th in rushing marginal efficiency. In turn, this overcommitment to the ground game has put the secondary in some terrible situations, resulting in huge plays through the air (120th in passing marginal explosiveness). On top of that, Ole Miss has been ineffective at getting to the QB, dropping from 9th in adjusted sack rate a year ago to 101st in 2018.
Similar to what we’ve seen with other opponents, Auburn could get it together against a very bad defense. Still, their current dysfunction could very well stick around or even exacerbate, and that’s enough reason to remain at least a little emotionally invested in this game.