Tigers, Rebels meet in Oxford with both teams looking to turn things around
With the balance of the 2020 season on the line for both squads, the Auburn Tigers head to Oxford to face the Ole Miss Rebels. The victor in this critical SEC West matchup receives a much-needed confidence boost as each team takes the field reeling from disappointing losses.
The inconsistent play for Auburn (2-2) on offense caught up to Gus Malzahn's team again, this time in a 30-22 defeat at South Carolina last Saturday. The Tigers moved the ball early against the Gamecocks getting a first-quarter, 35-yard field goal from Anders Carlson and an 11-yard touchdown pass from Bo Nix to Eli Stove. But two Nix interceptions slowed the pace as the visitors took a slim 16-14 lead into halftime. Another field goal stretched the lead to five before Collin Hill connected with Shi Smith from 10 yards out to give South Carolina its first lead with 6:31 remaining in the third quarter. Another TD (eight-yard run by Kevin Harris) and then a field goal in the fourth quarter was all the scoring the Gamecocks needed to hand Auburn another loss, sending the Tigers back to the drawing board on their season.
Entering last week's game against Arkansas, Ole Miss appeared to have one of the nation's top offenses, guided by the arm of Matt Corral and the legs of Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner. But the Razorbacks kept up their renewed sense of purpose on defense under coordinator Barry Odom, forcing seven turnovers including six Corral interceptions to hand the Rebels (1-3) a dispiriting 33-21 loss. The Hogs held strong in the red zone, limiting Ole Miss to just two scores on five trips, leaving new head coach Lane Kiffin dismayed on the sidelines. Even with all of the turnovers, Ole Miss still put up 442 yards of offense (242 rushing) and scored 21 points in the final 19:35 of the game.
Auburn at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Auburn -3
When Auburn Has the Ball
One of the hallmarks of Auburn football over the decades has been a strong running game. One of the things missing in Gus Malzahn's offense over the last two years has been that stud back who can carry the offense. For the first time since Kerryon Johnson led the SEC in rushing in 2017, the Tigers could have a new 1,000-yard back in true freshman Tank Bigsby. As Auburn tries to find its footing on offense under new coordinator Chad Morris, Bigsby has been a bright spot in the darkness. With Shaun Shivers missing the last three games, Bigsby has put up back-to-back 100-yard games against Arkansas (146) and South Carolina (111).
Morris' offense has not helped Nix take that step in his development as a quarterback. Nix was completing 57.6 percent of his passes a year ago as a true freshman but has seen that number dip so far this season (54.9). Even with Bigsby easing some of Nix's offensive burden, the sophomore is showing the burden that comes with trying to carry the full weight of a team on your shoulders. Perhaps seeing himself as the only playmaker, Nix is pressing which led to a three-interception game against South Carolina. If there was an opponent to help Nix and Auburn get back on track in the passing game, Ole Miss would be it.
The Rebels have been a point-scoring machine, but their defense has been even more prolific, but in the wrong way. Ole Miss is ranked last in the country in scoring defense at 47 points per game allowed. Auburn has notched wins scoring 29 (Kentucky) and 30 (Arkansas) points. The Razorbacks held the Rebels to a season-low 21 points, but that was helped greatly by seven turnovers. The Tigers' offense may get into a better rhythm against a porous Ole Miss defense, but can they keep up the scoring for four quarters?
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
Before facing Arkansas, Matt Corral was one of the most prolific passers in the country and still is ranked ninth in yards (1,280), but he showed some weaknesses reading coverages in the loss to the Razorbacks. His string of consecutive 300-yard passing games was snapped at three but he still threw for 200 yards and two scores. If this week's film study proves fruitful, Corral can recapture his form. The key targets that will give Auburn fits are receivers Elijah Moore and Jonathan Mingo and one of the conference's top tight ends, Kenny Yeboah.
The best one-two punch on the ground in the SEC is Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner. Ealy has rushed for 355 yards with five scores and has gone over 100 yards in back-to-back games. Conner's touches are increasing and he turned in a season-best 128-yard, two-touchdown performance against Alabama. The other pesky ground-gainer the Tigers have to account for is Corral. The offense is not intended for him to run a lot, but with the field spread out he can move the chains with his legs when the play breaks down and he's able to escape the pocket.
Statistically speaking, Auburn's defense has been average this season, but is that on Kevin Steele's unit or a byproduct of an inconsistent offense? The Tigers' defense had a bad day in the box against Georgia, allowing 202 rushing yards and a tough outing covering Arkansas' passing attack (318 yards, 4 TDs). But otherwise, this defense has shown it's up to the task. Trying to slow down the nation's seventh-ranked offense (540.3 ypg) will be another difficult challenge.
Auburn's defense is good, but Ole Miss' offense presents a stern test given the firepower the Rebels boast. Similar to Alabama, Lane Kiffin has the horses to attack any defense on the ground and through the air. If the Tigers get the needed stops, can their offense do enough to keep Ole Miss' defense on its heels?
The expected "soft spot" of Auburn's schedule has turned out to be anything but and the Tigers still have LSU, Alabama, and Texas A&M left to play. But taking care of business against Ole Miss comes first. Unfortunately, for Auburn, Matt Corral gets back on track and leads his Rebels to a big home win.
Prediction: Ole Miss 38, Auburn 28
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.