When Auburn’s October gauntlet began, this weekend’s matchup against Ole Miss was seen as the breath of fresh air at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Come now, Auburn has emerged from the stretch 2-2 with two road losses to top-10 teams, and Ole Miss is still mired in a school-record 10-game SEC losing streak. In some ways, the narrative hasn’t changed much. On paper, Ole Miss is easily the weakest team in the SEC West.
But if you’ve been paying attention to the blog and Auburn head coach Gene Chizik this week, you know the Tigers aren’t taking Ole Miss lightly. Chizik took it as far as saying Ole Miss is probably “the best 2-5 team in the country,” and the rest of the coaching staff, plus the players, have echoed that sentiment this week. Whether or not that’s some version of coachspeak remains to be seen, but Ole Miss did put a 17-0 first-half scare into Arkansas last week before succumbing in the second half.
As for the rest? Time to flesh it out in the matchups below. Remember to follow the blog on Twitter, and after the success of last week’s halftime chat, I’ll have another chat set up for those of you who will be watching the game from home.
On to the matchups…
Auburn vs. Ole Miss
- Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium.
- When: 7 p.m. ET, Saturday.
- TV: ESPNU.
- Records: Auburn 5-3, 3-2; Ole Miss 2-5, 0-4.
- Series: Auburn leads 26-9.
When Auburn runs
For the first time in weeks, Auburn’s run game will get to take a break from playing a top-50 run defense. Battered by injuries to the front seven, Ole Miss has been unable to slow anybody down in the running game. The Rebels rank 115th in the country in rush defense, last in the SEC. Ole Miss has given up 222.9 yards-per-game, so Auburn running back Michael Dyer could be in for a big day. Considering Auburn’s problems in the passing game so far this season, expect Ole Miss to stack the box, but it may not matter. With the exception of the first three quarters against LSU, Auburn has been able to churn out yards on the ground against every opponent so far, and the combination of Dyer, Onterrio McCalebb and quarterback Kiehl Frazier could be in for a big day against an Ole Miss team that lost defensive end Wayne Dorsey and cornerback Marcus Temple — both seniors — to season-ending injuries two weeks ago. Edge: Auburn.
When Ole Miss runs
The Rebels try to bring a little bit of thunder (215-pound Brandon Bolden) and lightning (175-pound Jeff Scott) to bear in the running game. Both Ole Miss running backs left the game against Arkansas last week with apparent injuries, but the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported earlier this week that both runners were healthy and ready for action against Auburn. Of the two, Scott has more carries this season, mainly due to Bolden’s problems with injury and a one-game suspension for breaking team rules. Scott is a burner who can get to the outside (he had an 83-yard touchdown run against Auburn last season) and Bolden is a stronger runner inside. Ever since October began, Auburn has been typically pretty strong on the edge against similar speed guys like Florida’s Chris Rainey, and LSU did most of its damage between the tackles last week, so expect Ole Miss to feature Bolden in this game and try to use Scott as the lightning bolt. Even with two backs, though, Ole Miss is ranked 11th in the SEC in rushing, barely cracking 108.9 yards-per-game. Auburn’s rush defense has been on the rise — LSU’s steamroller notwithstanding — and forced LSU to make plays in the passing game before the running game really got going in the second half. Edge: Auburn.
When Auburn throws
So many random variables to consider in this matchup. First of all, LSU’s pass rush rendered most of Auburn’s downfield passing game impossible, but Ole Miss only has 11 sacks on the season, and three of those came from the injured Dorsey. The loss of Temple, Ole Miss’s most experienced defender, can’t help either, but the Rebels held Arkansas to less than 50 percent completions last week. Second, Clint Moseley played pretty solid football when he could the ball away, completing 12-of-20 for 146 yards, although he did throw a bad pick-six to Ron Brooks. Under Moseley, though, Auburn did break the 150-yard mark for the first time in four weeks, and Ole Miss is ranked 11th in the SEC against the pass. Throw in the fact that Trovon Reed is back — and Emory Blake’s status is similarly up in the air — and this matchup’s awfully hard to pin down. Lack of a pass rush really hampers Ole Miss, but Auburn has really struggled to make plays in the passing game lately. Edge: Push.
When Ole Miss throws
In spurts, new starting quarterback Randall Mackey has made the Rebels a threat through the air. In two of the last three games Mackey has gone over the 200-yard mark passing, and that is apparently no easy feat for SEC quarterbacks this season. Even in limited action, Mackey ranks fifth in the SEC in passer rating, and he’s developed an ability to connect on the deep ball, especially with 6-2, 214-pound freshman Donte Moncrief, who has four touchdown catches and averages 19.0 yards-per-catch. Auburn’s secondary, on the other hand, has been susceptible to the big play, especially the over-the-top throw Mackey throws well, and the Tigers’ pass defense ranks dead-last in the SEC at 221.6 yards allowed. What will be key for Auburn in the matchup against Mackey will be to put the quarterback on the ground. Ole Miss has allowed 18 sacks, and Mackey has taken nine of those in the last three games. Defensive end Corey Lemonier should be able to wreak havoc against the Rebels’ offensive line, and if he can get help from the rest of the defense, Mackey could make some mistakes like the interception he tossed against Arkansas last week. Hard to give the edge, though, to the SEC’s worst pass defense. Edge: Ole Miss.
When Auburn fields a kick
Until last week against LSU, Auburn’s kick return game had been one of the most dangerous weapons in the Tigers’ special-teams arsenal, and even after an abysmal performance against LSU, Auburn still ranks first in the SEC in kick returns. Expect Tre Mason and Co. to return to normal this week despite an Ole Miss kick coverage unit that ranks second in the SEC. On the punt, Ole Miss’s Tyler Campbell has been one of the league’s better punters, belting it at better than 44 yards-per-kick, and he carries the third-best mark in the league. Edge: Auburn.
When Ole Miss fields a kick
Chizik’s praise for the Rebels’ punt-return unit is no joke. Ole Miss has brought back two punts for scores this season, and at least one more was called back for a penalty. Scott is a dynamic player in the punt return game, averaging a ridiculous 19 yards-per-punt. Only one problem. Auburn punter Steven Clark does not let teams bring back punts. At all. Over the course of 52 punts this season, return men have only brought back eight, and four came from a Florida team that couldn’t catch the ball. Clark did struggle last week, but LSU still didn’t really have an opportunity to bring it back. Not sure Scott will, either. In the kick return game, Ole Miss has been merely pedestrian, and Auburn has the SEC’s top-ranked kick coverage unit. Edge: Auburn.
Through the uprights
Save for a blip against Florida, Cody Parkey has been extremely reliable for Auburn this season, and he knocked a 40-plus yard field goal through the uprights against LSU to show there were no lingering effects from the Florida game. On the other side of the coin, Ole Miss kicker Bryson Rose has rarely had a chance to kick. He’s only attempted four field goals, but he was 16-of-18 last season. Rose should be fine. Edge: Push.
On the sideline
Houston Nutt’s self-righteous blast at Rivals.com reporter Neal McCready — for the details, check out this link to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal — lacked an awful lot of bite after Ole Miss gave up a 17-0 lead to lose. A win would’ve actually given Nutt some reason to puff out his chest, but 10 straight losses in the SEC and 11 of 12 has made Nutt a likely candidate to get the axe after this season. Chizik said Ole Miss was only a couple of plays away from a few more wins this season, but teams miss those plays for a reason, and a case can be made that Auburn has made the most of its opportunities, considering that all three losses were to top-10 teams that put the Tigers away early. With Nutt reeling, the edge here is pretty easy to see. Edge: Auburn.
For all of the talk about how dangerous Ole Miss is, particularly in terms of big plays, it’s hard to see the Rebels putting together much of a sustained attack against an Auburn team suited to attacking Ole Miss’s weakness. Bringing the 115th-ranked rush defense in the country into Jordan-Hare at night should be an open invitation for Michael Dyer, who had 180 yards against the Rebels last season, and Onterio McCalebb, who added 99. Compounding the problem, Auburn’s advantage on the ground will keep Mackey, Scott, Bolden and Moncrief on the sideline and limit Ole Miss’s opportunities for the kinds of big plays an upset-minded team desperately needs. In all but two games this season, Ole Miss has given up more than 200 yards on the ground, and both Vanderbilt and Alabama steamrolled the Rebels’ defense.
My pick: Auburn 31, Ole Miss 17.