AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football is on an upward trend right now as it heads to a key road matchup at Ole Miss, which is reeling from two tough losses. A few weeks ago, those roles could have easily been reversed, as the Rebels entered 2016 as a dark-horse contender in the SEC West.
What changed for Ole Miss (3-4, 1-3 SEC) ahead of its home game against Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC) this Saturday night? To find out, An Opposing View turned to an award-winning expert in Oxford.
Davis Potter is the college sports editor and beat writer at the Oxford Eagle, where he covers the hometown Rebels. Check out Potter’s story on one key area Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze is pleased with ahead of the Tigers’ visit, and be sure to follow him on Twitter @DPotterOE.
This week, Potter took some time to answer five questions about Ole Miss and gave his prediction to how things will go down Saturday night in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Justin Ferguson: What’s the status of Ole Miss’ offensive line heading into this game? How much confidence should the Rebels have in their backups if a starter or two can’t play Saturday?
Davis Potter: “They’re likely going to be without a pair of starters in left tackle Rod Taylor and right guard Jordan Sims, who are both dealing with high ankle sprains. That will put true freshman Greg Little and little-used junior Daronte Bouldin in the lineup.
“Both have played significant snaps this season with the Rebels using a regular rotation in an attempt to keep guys fresh, but this isn’t good considering the defensive line they’re about to go up against. It’s a lot to ask of an offensive line to hold up for four quarters against Auburn’s front, much less one that’s not at full strength.”
JF: Can you pinpoint what exactly has been the issue for Ole Miss’ run defense? Is it more of a problem with the Rebels themselves or with the high level of rushing talent its faced so far in teams such as Alabama, Georgia and LSU?
DP: “Ole Miss’ linebacker play has been a disaster, and while that’s putting a ton of pressure on the defensive line to make nearly every play, I don’t think the front has been great against the run either. 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. And when they are in position, they’re simply not getting off blocks.
“Leonard Fournette is a heck of a player, but Ole Miss made it awfully easy for him with a defender not touching him on some runs until he got to the second or third level.”
JF: How would you grade Chad Kelly’s performance as a whole so far this season?
DP: “I’d give Kelly an A-. This team’s defensive deficiencies — as well as Ole Miss’ inability to run the ball — are putting a ton of pressure on Kelly to do it all right now. He’s doing about all he can, ranking third in the SEC in passing efficiency for the league’s top passing offense while he’s led the Rebels in rushing in back-to-back games.
“It’s obvious the pressure to be perfect is affecting Kelly’s decision-making. He’s got four interceptions in his last three games and it could easily be more as he’s taking chances into double coverage at times. He’s the ultimate high risk, high reward quarterback in an offense that’s completely dependent on its passing game.”
JF: Auburn fans are quite familiar with Ole Miss stars such as Kelly, Evan Engram and Marquis Haynes. Who are some lesser-known players that will have major impacts Saturday?
DP: “The only way I see Ole Miss winning this game is by outscoring Auburn, and if the Rebels are going to do that, they’ll need big games from their talented receiving corps. Damore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo are big, fast options on the outside while freshman Van Jefferson is a smooth route-runner in the slot. Of course, Ole Miss’ line will need to give Kelly time.”
JF: Do you think the Rebels have what it takes to turn things around in the final stretch of the season after back-to-back losses?
DP: “It’s hard to win games against quality competition when you can’t run the ball and you can’t stop the run, and Ole Miss can’t do either. It won’t get any easier against Auburn, which will bring the SEC’s best rushing attack to Oxford against the SEC’s worst run defense. The Rebels’ schedule lightens up a bit after this week, but if they don’t find a way to win Saturday, they’ll be fighting to get to 6-6.”
JF: Finally, let’s hear your score prediction and how you see this game going Saturday.
DP: “The home crowd and the passing game keep Ole Miss close early, but it won’t be enough. 35-21 Auburn.”