You could argue Saturday's Auburn vs. Ole Miss matchup is one between two teams going in different directions as we get to the midway point of the season. After getting run-ruled by Alabama and LSU, things around the Grove are becoming cheery again as the Rebels (5-2, 1-2 SEC) seem to have re-found their stride and won their last two games, supplying 107 offensive points in the process in wins over ULM and Arkansas. Confidence is back in the fold for the Rebels.
For Auburn (4-3, 1-3), two straight losses have slouched their shoulders, including getting shutdown at Mississippi State two weeks ago and then getting stunned by punchless Tennessee at home last week.
For Ole Miss, quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and his legion of skill players are putting up record-setting numbers. Two weeks ago they posted 826 yards of total offense in the win over the aforementioned Warhawks, which was the second most in SEC history behind Alabama’s 833-yard output vs. Virginia Tech in 1973.
Auburn needs to rediscover its stride, particularly in the running game where the Tigers are 12th in the SEC with 154 yards on the ground per game. This week, AU’s leading rusher JaTarvious Whitlow is questionable with a shoulder injury so things don’t look promising for the Plainsmen and their offensive versatility. But Auburn does possess the better defense, which is why the Tigers are favored on the road this Saturday.
Auburn at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 20 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Auburn -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Make this one a track meet
Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, right? Well the Rebels have offense in spades, averaging 41.6 points per game, second only to Alabama in the SEC, and sixth nationally in total offense (550.9 ypg). Ole Miss has to hope for quick strikes, quick possessions. Get this game into the 40s as soon as possible, then just outscore the Tigers. It will be interesting if Jordan Ta’amu can keep filling the coffers of his “Nasty Wide Outs” A.J. Brown (50 catches, 650 yards) and DeMarkus Lodge (35, 466). Unfortunately fellow wideout D.K. Metcalf suffered a neck injury and is out for the rest of the season. But if his cohorts stay busy and stretch the field, this should be a light-show type of game.
2. Get Stidham back to being Stidham
After throwing a pair of costly interceptions in the 30-24 loss to Tennessee, there were rumblings this week that Jarrett Stidham should be benched. GASP! Really? Anyway, that’s bizarre to hear since this is a QB that in the preseason was mentioned as being a possible first-round NFL draft pick this coming April. But so far, he’s been very ordinary, hitting just 60 percent of his passes (compared to 72 percent a year ago) and throwing just seven TDs and four INTs through seven games. Look for Gus Malzahn & Co. to try to establish the offensive tempo right off the bat and formulate some easy throws to get Stidham into a rhythm early.
3. Oh my, try to find some defense. Anywhere.
Ole Miss comes in giving up 35 points and an SEC-worst 500 yards per game. Egad. But with their modicum of injuries contributing to their demise as a unit; two weeks ago a pair of running backs (Tylan Knight and Armani Linton) were converted to the defensive side of the ball in hopes they could help stop people. The discipline of the defense has been an issue as well. Last week head coach Matt Luke emphasized that Arkansas didn’t do anything the Rebels didn’t expect, but the Razorbacks still scored 27 first-half points because Ole Miss' defensive execution was just poor. So if you see a lot of blown coverages and Auburn receivers left to dance in the moonlight by themselves, it means more defensive pain for Johnny Reb.
Again, this is an Auburn team that just seems to be a sinking ship of late. Jarrett Stidham’s QB rating the last four games has been 26.4, 34.8, 52.0 and 31.2. Consider that his QB rating last year was 67.2 and as a freshman at Baylor it was 86.2. But defensively, you have to like their charges more, especially with linebacker Deshaun Davis (third in the SEC in tackles) and that nasty front four of the Tigers, which could very well be the difference in this game.
But if Ole Miss establishes some early confidence this one could go either way. Keep in mind this big stat; in Auburn’s three losses so far this season, the Tigers have gained just one turnover and lost seven.
Still, something tells me the Plainsmen will have a tough start but will eventually right the ship here.
Prediction: Auburn 31, Ole Miss 24
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.