AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football’s second trip away from Jordan-Hare Stadium this season takes the Tigers to a team that many expected to contend for the SEC West.
But struggles with the run and executing in the second half have hurt Ole Miss so far in 2016. Now the Rebels will host a red-hot Auburn team while sporting a losing record.
Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC) will look to continue its impressive run of hammering away at opponents on both sides of the ball. Ole Miss (3-4, 1-3 SEC) will bring out its big guns in hopes of lighting up the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium scoreboard for a big win on a late October night in Mississippi.
Let’s take a look at who has the advantage in each positional unit for this SEC West showdown, which has provided quite a few surprises in the last several seasons.
Auburn: Sean White had one of the least impressive performances of his young career against Arkansas, but that’s because he didn’t have to do much with an offense that ran the ball for more than 500 yards. White still leads the SEC in quarterback rating, completion percentage and passing yards per attempt. Whenever Auburn takes it to the air, White will make good decisions and put the ball on target for his receivers. Just don’t expect him to go for as many yards as his matchup.
Ole Miss: Chad Kelly is the man that makes everything go for the Ole Miss offense. He’s averaging nearly 300 yards per game and has put on some passing clinics in home games this season with 9 touchdowns to just 1 interception. Kelly is one of the most confident players in college football. During this matchup, that means he’ll test his cannon of an arm downfield often, sometimes forcing the ball into bad situations.
Edge: Ole Miss
Auburn: The Tigers are coming off their second-best rushing performance against a conference opponent in program history — and they did it without their normal starter at running back. But this week, Kerryon Johnson is expected to return to the fold as Kamryn Pettway looks to stay hot against the SEC’s worst run defense. Pettway now leads the SEC in rushing yards per game, and Johnson is averaging 5 yards per carry with 6 total rushing touchdowns. Stanton Truitt provides some much-needed depth with the speedy Kam Martin, and both are coming off of career games.
Ole Miss: Akeem Judd leads Ole Miss’ rushing attack this season with a modest 382 yards and 4 touchdowns on 80 carries. Kelly might be the most effective rusher on the team as the Rebels just haven’t found their groove on handoffs this season. Eugene Brazley had a big game against Memphis but has been held in check since then. Ole Miss’ weaknesses on the ground outside of Kelly have held them back this season, and they don’t have the firepower to compare with Auburn in this aspect.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Auburn: Tony Stevens leads all Auburn receivers with 24 catches, 408 yards and and 3 touchdowns — and that’s coming off a game in which he didn’t record a single reception. Ryan Davis has become the more common target for White on short- to intermediate-range routes. Rangy true freshmen Kyle Davis and Nate Craig-Myers are starting to be more involved on obvious passing downs. Auburn’s real strength at wide receiver is blocking, as the Tigers punished Arkansas for big plays on the ground last weekend.
Ole Miss: Ole Miss has five different receivers with double-digit catches this season, and DaMarkus Lodge is on the verge of joining that club with 9 so far. Tight end Evan Engram leads the entire SEC in receiving yardage (605) and is one of the most dangerous matchup problems in the entire country. Ole Miss has plenty of tall and quick targets who work well when Kelly decides to throw those deep bombs into traffic.
Edge: Ole Miss
Auburn: After struggling mightily through the first few weeks of the season, Auburn has become the aggressor in the trenches. A new-look lineup of Austin Golson at center and Darius James at left tackle have made Auburn more fierce in both run-blocking and pass protection. The Tigers lead the nation in fewest negative plays for the month of October. Alex Kozan and Braden Smith are hitting their stride as dominant guards, and don’t sleep on the progress right tackle Robert Leff has made in the last several weeks.
Ole Miss: According to this week’s edition of An Opposing View with Davis Potter of the Oxford Eagle, Ole Miss will most likely be without left tackle Rod Taylor and right guard Jordan Sims due to high ankle sprains. The Rebels rank eighth nationally this season in fewest tackles for loss allowed, but that strength will be tested heavily thanks to those injuries up front. They have an incredibly tough matchup this weekend against an Auburn defensive line that’s firing on all cylinders.
Auburn: No other Tiger unit is playing better right now than Auburn’s defensive line, and that’s saying something. The defensive line was the driving force in 5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss and an insane amount of quarterback hurries last Saturday against Arkansas. Carl Lawson is looking like a future first-round NFL draft pick. Montravius Adams is one of the most consistent defensive tackles in the nation. Auburn will be able to attack a banged-up Ole Miss offensive line in waves thanks to the progress of key backups such as Andrew Williams, Jeff Holland, Devaroe Lawrence and Byron Cowart.
Ole Miss: The Rebels have some star power of their own on the defensive line. It begins and ends with Marquis Haynes. The junior defensive end had a career day against Auburn last year. He’s well on his way to leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss again in 2016. Outside of Haynes, Ole Miss is looking for more production — especially in the area of run-stopping — but there’s no denying the post-Robert Nkemdiche talent of players such as D.J. Jones and Breeland Speaks.
Auburn: The Tigers have been rock-solid at the linebacker spot all season long. Arkansas’ rushing attack was stonewalled against Auburn thanks to the plays near the line of scrimmage by the likes of Deshaun Davis, Tre’ Williams and Darrell Williams. The latter Williams is becoming a real force in blitzing situations, too, with Davis taking over the leadership role at the position. Tre’ Williams is the most consistent run-stopper on the team. Montavious Atkinson provides much-needed depth with T.J. Neal and Tre Threat at a position that has gone far above expectations this year.
Ole Miss: In the words of Davis Potter of the Oxford Eagle, “Ole Miss’ linebacker play has been a disaster … they’re frequently out of position, a problem I think is being compounded right now by players trying to do too much, overpursuing and abandoning their gap integrity.”
DeMarquis Gates and Detric Bing-Dukes had modest tackles for loss numbers this season, but they haven’t been able to make the standard plays as Ole Miss has surrendered the most rushing yards per game this season of any SEC team.
Auburn: Auburn faced 30-plus passing attempts in all but one game this season. It hasn’t allowed more than 20 completions in a single contests. The Tigers have active hands in creating pass breakups and have cut down on the crucial mistakes that usually turn into huge plays for their opponents. Auburn will face one of its biggest tests of the season against Ole Miss’ passing game, but it’s coming in on a hot streak, especially with Javaris Davis emerging as a key figure alongside Carlton Davis and Rudy Ford.
Ole Miss: Ole Miss’ pass defense turned things around after getting torched in the first game of the season against Florida State, but the last two losses haven’t been kind to its secondary. LSU’s shaky passing attack completed 68 percent of its passes against the Rebels, and Arkansas put up 3 touchdowns through the air one week before getting nearly shutout by Auburn. Derrick Jones and Zedrick Woods each have a pick-six to their names this season, though, so this unit knows how to take advantage of mistakes from the opposition.
Auburn: Daniel Carlson had another typical night of knocking down extra points and drilling touchbacks against Arkansas, but his big and consistent leg for field goals (13 for 14 this season) will be crucial in a road environment. While Kevin Phillips doesn’t boom many long punts, he ensures they won’t get returned — Auburn has allowed two returns for a FBS-best minus-3 yards this season. Auburn needs a spark from its return game after a pedestrian first seven games of the season. Those playmakers could be the difference in a close game.
Ole Miss: Ole Miss kicker Gary Wunderlich isn’t Daniel Carlson, but he has nearly the same amount of consistency. He’s only missed one field goal in 11 tries this season and one extra point in 30 attempts. Both Wunderlich and Will Gleeson average more than 44 yards per punt this season, too. Like Auburn, Ole Miss hasn’t done much in terms of return yardage this season. The Rebels have allowed a punt return for a touchdown this season, so keep an eye on that if Auburn gets a chance.
The Bottom Line
Much like the Arkansas matchup, Auburn holds the edge in the trenches against an SEC West opponent that just hasn’t performed up to expectations on both lines. But Ole Miss will have the advantage at home in the passing game, as Kelly has put up plenty of points with his receivers inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The run defense woes for Ole Miss stand out, and Auburn took full advantage of the ones Arkansas had last weekend in a record-breaking rout. Auburn’s defense is playing much better all the way around, so it’s easy to see why the Tigers are decent favorites away from home against a team coming off back-to-back losses.
However, it’s easy to see that Ole Miss has played much better at home this season than on the road, and its home crowd should be fired up to see the Rebels play a crucial night game for their postseason chances. Auburn has the potential to record another big win away from home, but this Ole Miss team has a lot of firepower in its air attack.