When No. 15 Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC) squares off against Ole Miss (3-4, 1-2) on Saturday, the underlying storyline in this SEC West showdown is the tale of two teams with similar starts to their season heading in opposite directions.
Auburn started the season unranked coming off a disappointing 7-6 2015 campaign. A 1-2 start with losses to Clemson and Texas A&M put head coach Gus Malzahn on the hot seat. A change in play-calling duties from Malzahn to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has helped turn the fortunes of the Tigers’ offense around, and subsequently their season too. Auburn has won four games in a row — a stretch that includes victories over LSU, Mississippi State and Arkansas — and has averaged 42 points per game during this streak. The Tigers are quickly becoming a team no one wants to face at this point in the season.
Ole Miss started its season out much the same way, dropping key early games to both Florida State and Alabama, despite leading each at the half, before balancing out with wins over then- No. 11 Georgia and Memphis. But back-to-back losses to Arkansas and LSU have highlighted two issues the Rebels have dealt with all season — second-half scoring and defense. Ole Miss still has five games remaining to turn its season around and at minimum secure a bowl invitation.
With three conference losses, the Rebels are out of the SEC West race, but Auburn is hanging tough with just one loss (Texas A&M). Can the Tigers continue on an unlikely path to Atlanta that had them starting out unranked or will Ole Miss play spoiler at home and start to turn its disappointing season around?
Auburn at Ole Miss
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 29 at 7:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Auburn -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ole Miss’ Run Defense
Noting that the Rebels have trouble stopping the run is an understatement. The defensive front is undersized and the linebackers have had trouble coming downhill and containing opposing running backs. In back-to-back games, Arkansas’ Rawleigh Williams rushed for 180 yards and LSU’s Leonard Fournette earned SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors after piling 284 on the ground with three scores in just 16 carries.
The Rebels are ranked No. 113 out of 128 FBS teams in rush defense, allowing 226 yards per game on the ground alone. Thanks to a similar porous Arkansas rush defense that surrendered a whopping 543 on the ground to Auburn (SEC regular-season record and most by any FBS team this season), the Tigers are now the No. 3 rushing offense in the nation (302.9 ypg).
Auburn’s offense is firing on all cylinders. The Tigers should get starting running back Kerryon Johnson back after missing the Arkansas game with an ankle injury. That’s just more bad news for Ole Miss’ beleaguered defense.
2. Ole Miss’ Second-Half Adjustments
The Rebels have an offense that can put points up on the board and move the chains up and down the field. The offense is averaging 454 yards and 35 points per game, but a shift has occurred. Defenses are picking up the Rebels’ play-calling trends and making the necessary adjustments at halftime to hold them in check over the final two quarters. Arkansas and LSU kept Ole Miss to under its season scoring average, by putting the clamps down in the second half. The Razorbacks gave up just 10 second-half points in their 34-30 victory, while the Tigers shut the Rebels out completely in Baton Rouge in the third and fourth quarter on their way to a 38-21 win.
Between head coach Hugh Freeze and co-offensive coordinators Matt Luke and Dan Werner, a change in philosophy has to be implemented. Keeping with what was working in the first half has been the downfall after the break. Opposing defenses have adjusted. It’s time for Ole Miss to do the same.
3. Can Ole Miss Force Sean White to Throw?
Auburn is playing about as well as any team in the country, looking balanced across the board with the exception of its passing attack. White, the Tigers’ sophomore starting quarterback, is not prolific but has become the quintessential game manager. He leads the SEC in QB rating (156.1) as he's thrown for 1,264 passing yards, seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. He also leads the conference in completion rate (69 percent).
Because Auburn now runs the ball so well, passing lanes have opened up and play-action fakes are freezing linebackers and safeties. White is accurate when given time but can be forced into bad plays or hold on to the ball too long, as he’s been sacked 12 times. If Ole Miss can somehow slow down the Tigers’ running game to force White to make more plays with his arm, the Rebels might have a chance.
An Ole Miss win really comes down to quarterback Chad Kelly beating Auburn with his dual-threat abilities and the Rebels somehow dramatically slowing down the Tigers’ run game.
The Rebels do not have depth on defense. Long sustained drives by Kelly will give his defense the opportunity to stay fresh into the fourth quarter. If Auburn continues to run the ball the way the Tigers have over the last month, the second half could get ugly in Oxford as the Ole Miss defense will likely wilt again under the heavy pounding.
Gus Malzahn is 2-1 against Ole Miss as a head coach. Look for that first number to increase by the time this one’s over Saturday night.
Prediction: Auburn 48, Ole Miss 18
— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.