AUBURN, Ala. — If one would’ve framed the Auburn vs. Ole Miss matchup one month ago as a game between a team struggling with a losing record and a ranked opponent that has found its stride on both sides of the ball, it’s hard to imagine many would’ve picked Auburn as the latter program.
That’s the main takeaway in looking ahead to No. 15 Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC) at unranked Ole Miss (3-4, 1-3 SEC). The records might be separated by a couple of SEC West wins, but this doesn’t have the normal look of a trap game for a top-15 team. The home underdog was in a good spot just a few weeks ago.
Auburn will bring its increasingly elite defense and No. 3 rushing offense to Oxford this Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET, SEC Network) to face an Ole Miss team that has plenty of talent across the board. The Rebels’ quarterback is one of the best in college football, and the defense still has that same type of “Land Shark” speed that defined its recent rise in the SEC.
This matchup has the potential to go in a lot of different direction because it’s deeper than a game between two teams heading in opposite directions in the conference standings. Here are 5 Key Things to watch for as Auburn faces Ole Miss:
1. Great ground game vs. reeling run defense
Auburn’s rushing attack couldn’t be coming off a better performance. The Tigers ran for 523 yards against Arkansas an averaged nearly 10 yards every time they took a handoff. Doing it without Kerryon Johnson — who is expected to play against Ole Miss — was an even better sign of the progress Auburn is making on the ground.
Ole Miss’ run defense, on the other hand, is coming off the heels of a Leonard Fournette-led destruction in a 38-21 loss at LSU. A finally healthy Fournette ran for 284 yards on just 16 carries and scored 3 touchdowns. The Rebels allowed more than 300 rushing yards in a game for the second time this season. Ole Miss now ranks 113th nationally in yards allowed per rush at 5.16.
The Tigers had no problem putting up a record-breaking performance against a bad Arkansas run defense. While Ole Miss hasn’t been as consistently bad against the run as the Razorbacks, its low points have been some of the worst in the Power 5. Auburn’s running game is clicking at the perfect time as it hits the road for just the second time this season.
2. Holding off Haynes
Even though the Rebels have struggled against the run this season, their defense still has plenty of athleticism and star power. The biggest name to watch is defensive end Marquis Haynes, who led the team in tackles for loss and sacks last season and is well on his way to doing it again in 2016.
“Defensively, they’ve got a lot of speed,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “The Haynes kid, it really starts with him. He has a great motor. They do a lot of different things. They probably have more pressures than anybody we’ve seen all year.”
Ole Miss will dial up a lot of different types of blitzes to get after Sean White, and Haynes will be the leader in that effort. He had his best game of the 2015 season against the Tigers. This will be a major test for the Auburn offensive line, which struggled early in the season against star pass-rushers. It’s time to see how much the tackle pairing of Darius James and Robert Leff has improved in recent weeks.
3. Kelly’s gonna chunk it
Ole Miss senior quarterback Chad Kelly is never afraid to sling the ball downfield. He averages 35 attempts and 295.3 passing yards per game. He has supreme confidence in his receivers. Kelly will challenge opponents with the vertical passing game and try to draw up either a big play or a defensive penalty.
“They throw a lot of deep-shot balls and a lot of those balls are, you go get it, if you don’t get it, it’ll be interference,” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said Sunday. “There’s a lot of that takes place in college football now. And so it is an issue. That’s why you have to win early in the down on them.”
If Auburn can pressure Kelly and his banged-up offensive line into tough situations, it can force some key turnovers and swing momentum away from home. But there’s also the challenge of Kelly’s legs — he can easily escape pressure and go for the deep shot if Auburn doesn’t keep him contained.
4. The fast and the furious starts
Since the LSU game, Auburn has opened up some huge leads on opponents before halftime. The Tigers have outscored opponents 91-10 in the first half during their last three games, which has been a complete flip from what happened in the first month of the season.
However, this Ole Miss team is quite familiar with throwing big punches early. Despite their 3-4 record, the Rebels haven’t trailed at halftime at all this season. They are well-equipped to hang with a fast start from Auburn if that trend continues Saturday. Also, keep in mind Ole Miss is 3-1 inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium this season, with the lone loss coming against Alabama.
Unlike its last two SEC games, Auburn should expect a tough fight in the first half from Ole Miss. The Rebels may have four losses, but they have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball and will be back in front of their home fans for what could be a crucial game for their bowl hopes.
5. Keep the foot on the gas pedal
There was a noticeable difference between the way Auburn played against Mississippi State and Arkansas. Instead of easing up in the second half like they did in Starkville, the Tigers were more cutthroat after the break against Arkansas. They doubled their score in the second half and didn’t let up, even when the game was well in hand.
Judging by its losses so far this season, Ole Miss is the perfect opponent for that mindset for Auburn. The Rebels have seen close games and even big leads turn into losses after halftime, so avoiding the third-quarter slumps that snuck up on Auburn several times earlier this season will be paramount.
Offensively, Ole Miss has the talent to make something big happen quickly, so no lead is completely safe inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. This matchup has the makings of a much closer game than the Arkansas blowout. But if the Tigers jump out to that decisive lead, they need to slam the door on the Rebels.