The SEC West dominated the first release of college football’s playoff rankings, but there’s a chance for a shake up in the top four with Auburn and Ole Miss meeting in Oxford on Saturday night.
It’s too early to call this an elimination game in the SEC West, but both teams need this game. Ole Miss suffered its first loss of the season last Saturday at LSU, while Auburn won a 42-35 shootout against South Carolina. The winner of this game will keep pace with Mississippi State and Alabama as the main contenders in the West and should stay among the top four in next week’s playoff poll.
Auburn owns a 28-10 series edge over Ole Miss. The Tigers won last year’s matchup 30-22 and have defeated the Rebels four out of the last five times in this series. Ole Miss won the last meeting between these two teams in Oxford, edging the Tigers 41-20 in 2012.
Auburn at Ole Miss
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ole Miss -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace
Prior to last week’s game against LSU, Wallace was playing mistake-free ball in the SEC. The senior started conference play by tossing zero interceptions through his first four games but played his worst game of the year in Baton Rouge. Wallace threw for just 176 yards on 14 completions (33 attempts) and tossed a costly last-minute interception to lose 10-7. For Ole Miss to get back into the win column this week, Wallace has to play better. The Rebels don’t have a traditional rushing attack, and the senior will have opportunities to make plays against an Auburn secondary that allowed five touchdowns and 416 passing yards to South Carolina last week. Wallace has a solid group of receivers at his disposal, but the offensive line is a concern with recent injuries to center Ben Still and tackle Laremy Tunsil. Considering the firepower on Auburn’s sideline, it’s tough ask Ole Miss’ defense to hold the Tigers in check all four quarters. Can Wallace bounce back after a rough outing in Baton Rouge? The Tigers defense should provide a good opportunity for the senior to get back on track and keep Ole Miss in contention for a playoff spot.
2. Auburn’s Rushing Attack
Ole Miss’ rush defense took a pounding in Baton Rouge last Saturday. The Rebels allowed 264 yards – a season high – to LSU and gave up 4.8 yards per carry. Additionally, the defense was on the field for 36 minutes. Time of possession isn’t necessarily important in the outcome of a game, but it’s noteworthy Ole Miss just played a 60-minute battle against a run-first team. Can the Rebels regain their pre-LSU form and recharge for another 60-minute battle against a run-first team? Auburn will test Ole Miss’ rush defense, as the Tigers averaged 8.4 yards per carry against South Carolina last week and have recorded at least 232 rushing yards in six out of their first seven games. Cameron Artis-Payne leads the team with 831 yards, but quarterback Nick Marshall is equally as dangerous with the ball in his hands, rushing for 581 yards on 85 attempts this year. Auburn’s offensive line is not as dominant as it was in 2013, but the Tigers are still one of the best in the nation on the ground. In order to stop Marshall and Artis-Payne, Ole Miss needs defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Cody Prewitt at full strength. Both players were banged up in last week’s loss, and this defense will have trouble containing the Auburn offense if either is forced to miss a chunk of Saturday’s game. After taking a pounding in Baton Rouge, the front seven of Ole Miss will be under fire once again. In order to beat the Tigers, the Rebels have to stop the run on first and second downs, forcing Auburn to take to the air to win. Which team wins the battle at the line of scrimmage is critical to the outcome on Saturday night.
3. Timely stops by Auburn?
Auburn’s defense struggled on the stat sheet last year, but the Tigers were known for getting stops at critical times on third downs and in the red zone. This year, Auburn is statistically better, holding opponents to 25.3 points per game (SEC-only games) after allowing 29.6 in 2013. Also, the Tigers have limited opponents to just 5.7 yards per play – an improvement from the 6.4 mark in SEC games last season. While those numbers are good news for coordinator Ellis Johnson, it’s also important to note Auburn leads the SEC (conference-only games) in third-down and red zone defense. Across the board, improvement seems evident for the Tigers. However, this unit just allowed 35 points to South Carolina and has allowed 32 plays of 20 yards or more in 2014. Will that trend continue on Saturday night? Ole Miss isn’t as explosive as the Auburn on offense and needs to get seven points when they get in the red zone. If the Tigers can limit the Rebels’ big plays – especially to receiver Laquon Treadwell – and limit Ole Miss to field goals, Auburn can counter with touchdowns and break out to an early (and potentially commanding lead).
This matchup features an interesting contrast in styles, as the Rebels own one of the SEC’s top defenses, while the Tigers rank near the top of the conference in scoring. Ole Miss would prefer for this game to not turn into a 45-40 type of shootout and needs to rely on its defense once again. However, the Rebels have to find more answers on the ground and need a flawless effort from Wallace. Ole Miss could be more aggressive with its play-calling, allowing Wallace to take advantage of a suspect Auburn secondary. Asking the Rebels to shut down the Tigers’ offense is simply too tall of an order. However, Ole Miss can limit Auburn’s big plays, and force Malzahn’s offense to drive the length of the field. If the Rebels revert back to their pre-LSU form against the run, Ole Miss will knock off Auburn and remain squarely in the top four of college football’s playoff. If the Tigers establish their tempo and get out to a 14-0 or 14-3 start on offense, that might be too much to overcome for the Rebels.