Two big sighs of relief were exhaled on Saturday, one coming from Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and the other from Ole Miss interim head coach Matt Luke. Malzahn cleared a potential stumbling block against a visiting Mississippi State team winning 49-10 while Luke was all too happy to leave Tuscaloosa by the time the clock ran out. Luke now has the unfortunate task of going back into the Yellowhammer State for a second consecutive week while Malzahn must guard against a potential trap game.
After former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze resigned on July 20, the avalanche of negativity hitting the Rebels football program seemed unyielding. As a result, not much was expected of this relatively young team coming off of a disappointing 5-7 (just 2-6 in SEC) showing in 2016. Ole Miss (2-2) looked competitive three games into its 2017 schedule until facing Alabama. The Crimson Tide took the Rebels to the woodshed, doling out a 66-3 spanking. Two bright spots for Ole Miss were senior running back Jordan Wilkins rushing for more than 100 yards and sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson. Both will need to shine bright on Saturday if the Rebels want put a scare into the Tigers.
Meanwhile, it appears that Auburn (4-1) is finally gaining the momentum so many were expecting entering this season. After a contentious 14-6 road loss to Clemson in Week 2, the Tigers have begun to come together on offense with a relentless defense getting consistent three-and-outs while keeping the opposition off the board. Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a junior college transfer by way of Baylor, is starting to settle in, which is opening things up even more on the ground for junior tailbacks Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, when healthy. The Tigers must stay sharp against Ole Miss without looking ahead to next week’s trip to Baton Rouge.
Ole Miss at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Auburn -21.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson vs. Auburn’s pass defense
Patterson, understandably, took a step back against No. 1 Alabama. He completed just 14 of his 29 pass attempts and didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season while tossing two interceptions and getting sacked five times. What’s scary for Patterson is the fact that Auburn’s defense, statistically speaking, is better than Alabama’s against the pass. The Tigers are allowing 142 passing yards per game, fifth best among FBS teams, while the Crimson Tide are at 175 yards allowed per game through the air.
Expect the SEC leader in passing yards (1,446), touchdown passes (11), and QBR (162.8) to be challenged heavily for a second consecutive week. If Patterson has not learned from his mistakes, this could be a feast for Auburn.
2. Evolution of Jarrett Stidham
Over the last three games, Stidham has completed 81 percent of his passes while averaging 282 yards per game. The Tigers have a stable of running backs but need Stidham to keep defenses honest. If he can continue to settle in, the running backs should find even more room to run and this offense will be hard to stop.
Stidham has a tendency to hold onto the ball, as he’s been sacked 17 times in five games. If the Rebels can get to Stidham, this could be a game changer.
3. Health of Kerryon Johnson
Even within a more balanced offense, Auburn is one of the better teams in the nation at running the ball, averaging 208 rushing yards per game. Ole Miss has been one of the worst defenses against the run thus far, ranking 116 out of 129 FBS teams at 229 rushing yards per game allowed. Johnson missed the Clemson and Mercer games and did not look sharp against Missouri, netting 48 yards on 18 carries. His breakout came last week with 116 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries against Mississippi State. His breakaway speed was noticeably slowed by a gimpy hamstring, but he still turned in a great performance. Can his hamstring hold up against the Rebels?
Gut check time for Ole Miss. There are no sure-fire wins on the schedule until Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns from the Sun Belt come to Oxford on Nov. 11. And even that’s no guarantee. Sitting at 2-2 facing a tall order of Vanderbilt, LSU, Arkansas and Kentucky after this game, interim head coach Matt Luke needs to find a way to keep his Rebels in this game for four quarters. Another bad loss following their 66-3 beatdown at Alabama could send the season spiraling in the wrong direction.
Ole Miss has been good against the pass, but that’s because teams have been able to run at will on the Rebels. Auburn will take advantage of this, building a big lead early and then throttling back just enough to avoid the risk of a major injury with a showdown against LSU in Baton Rouge looming.
Prediction: Auburn 48, Ole Miss 10
— 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.