Football commentary by HT.com contributor Seph Anderson
The biggest, most important home game in the history of Ole Miss Football?
Without a shadow of a doubt.
Never before have two teams, both ranked inside the Top 10 (yet alone both in the Top 5), played inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. It will be an epic night for Ole Miss Football.
As big as the Alabama game was and as large as the Egg Bowl looms, the No. 4 Rebels’ date with No. Auburn (CFP Poll) is of an undefinable magnitude. Under the lights Saturday night, two top-ranked, one loss clubs vying for a spot in both the SEC Championship Game and inaugural College Football Playoff, will face off in a virtual death match in which the loser’s title hopes fade away while the winner’s hopes move much, much closer to becoming a reality.
As for the victorious, not only will they provide validation to the CFP Selection Committee (and nation) that they are worthy of their initial ranking and place within the playoff field, but they also become a leading candidate to represent the SEC West in Atlanta (even over Mississippi State).
The No. 1 Bulldogs currently sit at 7-0, with an undefeated conference mark, but they face a truly brutal final stretch in which they host a young, dangerous Arkansas team this weekend before traveling to both Bryant Denny Stadium and Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in the final weeks of the season.
Don’t expect the Bulldogs to arrive in Oxford on November 29 undefeated. 10-1 is much more likely.
Enough about that other team though, what must the Rebels do to knock off the Tigers?
Rock the Vaught
Wait though, it’s not just what the Rebels must do, it’s also what the home crowd must do.
Those of you around for the November 22, 2003 home contest with LSU, a game in which the Rebels were fighting for a chance to represent the SEC West in Atlanta, remember that absolutely deafening crowd roar that ensued when Travis Johnson picked off Matt Mauck for a pick six?
That’s the kind of raucous, unwavering, intimidating and daunting environment Rebel fans from two-year olds to 92-year-olds in attendance must create from opening kickoff until the clock reads all zeros at the end of the fourth quarter. It could very well determine the final outcome of what should be a closely contested game throughout. The stakes have never been higher inside the Vaught, and for that we all must do our part to provide Bo and the boys with a hostile environment for Auburn.
Make the Auburn Offense Uncomfortable on the Road
Now stay with me here, what the Rebels must do on the field to come out on top also has everything to do with making Auburn feel the effects of playing on the road.
Entering Saturday night, the Auburn Tigers have only played two road games this year.
September 18 at Kansas State, Auburn won 20-14. October 14 at Mississippi State, Auburn lost 38-23.
In games outside of Jordan-Hare Stadium this fall, the Tigers have fumbled three times, losing two. And while QB Nick Marshall has thrived in Gus Malzahn’s system, the road hasn’t been particularly kind to the dual-threat quarterback this year in terms of efficiency.
In away games against Kansas State and Mississippi State, Marshall has four touchdown passes to three interceptions. And of his seven rushing scores this season, none of them have come on the road. He’s put some solid yards on the ground and through the air, but mistakes have been made and touchdown scores have been limited.
As for RB Cameron Artis-Payne, averaging 118.7 YPG rushing, he only produced 63 yards rushing at K-State and 70 yards rushing at Mississippi State. Touchdowns? None of his six on the year came on the road.
So, who produced and was the most efficient offensive playmaker in the two road contests? WR D’haquille Williams. Plain and simple.
Against the Wildcats and Bulldogs, Williams averaged 7 catches for 109 yards and 1.5 touchdowns. S Cody Prewitt must keep a close eye on Williams throughout the night, negating potential big plays.
The Rebel secondary has done a good job this year at containing big-time playmakers like Alabama WR Amari Cooper and LSU WR Travin Dural. Now it must do the same with Williams.
If it can keep wraps on Williams and not let Marshall pick up big chunks of yards in the Auburn zone-read attack, then the defense will have done its part.
Rebel Offense, Strike Balance and Attack
When the Rebels have the ball, they must generate some semblance of a balanced attack early on, if for no other reason than to alleviate the pressure on Bo to “make” plays happen.
But it won’t be easy, with Auburn only giving up 120.4 YPG on the ground. Like they did against Texas A&M, the best thing the Rebels can do will be to stretch the field (and Auburn defense) by blocking effectively and allowing runners to get to the outsides.
Against LSU last weekend, the Rebels rushed 34 times for only 137 yards. Moreover, no Ole Miss players rushed for more than 40 yards, with the 40 yards coming from Wallace. We know how that turned out.
While Wallace and RBs I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton will get their fair share of carries, there simply have to be more backs involved in the run game throughout the night to keep the Auburn D on its toes. I said it prior to the LSU game and I’ll say it again this week, younger players like RBs Mark Dodson and Jordan Wilkins and reserve QB Devante Kincade must become involved throughout the night to provide the Rebels with a versatile, fresh ground game against one of the top run defense’s in the land.
Hugh Freeze must open up the playbook and call a far less conservative game, if the Rebels are to have a chance to knock off the Tigers and remain in full control of their postseason destiny.
More pass attempts on first and second downs, with shots being taken against a suspect Auburn pass defense. Suspect as in giving up an average of 242 passing yards per game in 2014. Sure, the Tigers have picked off 13 balls in eight games this year, but their secondary remains vulnerable.
Wallace must be able to take shots on nearly every series to open up the offense. If he can connect on a few long passes early, the Rebel ground game should find success.
Six Stats to Store Away for Saturday Night
Ole Miss has yet to allow an opponent to score over 20 points this year, while Auburn has scored 20+ points in every game this season. Auburn is 310-5 all time when scoring at least 30 points in a game.
Auburn’s last five losses have come against teams ranked No. 6 or higher. The Rebels enter the contest ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff Poll.
Auburn has come up with four interceptions in the red zone this season.
Auburn is only allowing 6.9 points per game in the second half this year.
Ole Miss is 19-4 under Freeze when scoring first, Auburn 13-0 under Malzahn when scoring first.
Ole Miss is 18-2 under Freeze when rushing for 150+ yards (4-10 when under 150 yards rushing).
What Happens Against Auburn
Considering the magnitude and significance of this one, I fully expect Freeze to call a far less conservative game on offense. A chance like this, contending in November for an SEC titles and national championship, hasn’t happened in Oxford in over 50 years (and Freeze knows that).
For the dream to continue, the offense will have to put up at least 21 points against Auburn.
A wounded Rebel defense will have its hands full containing the zone-read attack, but I expect them to get the job done. The defense may be pressed to keep Auburn under 20 points this weekend, but they won’t allow much more than that. In the end, the Rebels improve to 8-1 on the season and remain in control of their postseason destiny.
Ole Miss 31 – Auburn 24
Seph Anderson, Ole Miss alum, staff member and fervent Rebel, covers timely Ole Miss & SEC news.
He resides with his wife and their two young girls in Oxford, MS and serves at the Academic Advisor for the Early Entry Pharmacy Program.