What’s at stake: Barring the biggest upset in the Iron Bowl since God/the Bear (for Tide fans: delete as applicable) was a boy, Auburn has only two chances remaining to claim a winning regular season (and avoid Shreveport/Pizza Bowl ignominy), and only one of them is at home. So, yeah, this is a big Saturday for Chizik and crew.
For an Ole Miss team already out of the division race the stakes are a little vaguer, but 10 wins and berth in the Cap One is still very much in play–and as we learned first-hand this week here at WBE, that would make for one hell of a season for the Rebels, SEC West title or not. A loss to a legitimately reeling Auburn team, though, not only dashes those dreams but raises the specter of whether they’ll be able to make it through the rest of the remainder of their schedule unscathed.
So maybe it’s not a “must-win” for either team … but it’s about as close as you can get.
When Auburn has the ball
This isn’t going to be good.
Ole Miss ranks ninth in the nation in scoring defense, no team has put up more than 22 points on them yet, and even their No. 21 rating in total D is held back by fluky, indifferent performances against UAB and SELA. Against SEC competition, the Rebels haven’t allowed any team more than 5.3 yards a play (that’s Arkansas) or 354 total yards (Alabama). Led by senior corner Marshay Green, their secondary features three seniors and a junior and has been as good as any outside Gainesville and Tuscaloosa in the country–only the Tide and Gators have posted a better opponent’s quarterback rating than the Rebels. This is not the week for Chris Todd to get his mojo back.
Which means Auburn’s going to have some serious hay in the running game, as unappetizing a prospect as running at Kentrell Lockett, Greg Hardy, Jerrell Powe, Patrick Trahan, Ted Laurent, etc. seems to be. (Here’s a fun fact for you: remember how earlier this week I mentioned that Auburn has one non-JUCO junior on its entire defensive second string? The Rebels have three seniors on the second-string defensive line, and the fourth backup is Powe. Sigh.) Despite all that firepower the Rebels have been slightly more vulnerable on the ground, ranking 62nd in the country per-rush-against and giving up 4.5 yards a carry or better for three straight weeks against Vandy, Alabama, and UAB. Of course, they also held South Carolina to 1.9 yards a carry and Arkansas to 2.05, so they’re plenty capable.
No matter–Auburn’s simply going to have run the ball down the Rebels’ throats and hope their guests are having a UAB-kind of day rather than the kind of day they had last week against the Hogs. Because there’s nothing in Auburn’s play over the last three weeks or Ole Miss’s over the course of this year that suggests that Auburn’s going anywhere in the air.
When Ole Miss has the ball
you’re looking at the anti-Auburn.
For the first five weeks of the year the Rebels looked nothing like the high-octane bunch we watched shred various otherwise-competent opponents to close 2008: 4 yards a play against South Carolina. 5.2 against Vandy. 3.7 against Alabama–sure, it’s the Tide, but only FIU and Va. Tech (heh) have done worse.
Then there’s past two weeks, when the Rebels have absolutely gone off: 7.8 yards a play against UAB, 553 total yards against what appeared to be a rejuvenated Hog defense last week. After not topping more than 8 yards an attempt all year, Jevan Snead threw for 10.9 and 10.1 a pop. Led by Dexter McCluster, the running game had its best two days of the year against D-I competition, and by a wide margin.
If Ole Miss continues to play like that, and Auburn’s defense continues to play at the level it’s played at all season, things aren’t going to be pretty. McCluster in particular is the stuff of nightmares for this Auburn defense: the Tigers have been OK against the plodding Anthony Dixons and Charles Scotts of the world, but elite speed merchants like Noel Devine, Randall Cobb, even Russell Shepard? Those guys have caused Auburn fits, and McCluster’s as good as any of them.
That said: thanks in part to an offensive line that’s had to break in a couple of new faces, the Rebel run game hasn’t been dominant. Even against UAB and Arkansas, their numbers weren’t way out of line with what the Blazers and Hogs have averaged for the year. And while Snead looks mostly back to normal, he could still stand to be more careful with the ball: he tossed two picks last week and would have wound up with a negative TD-to-INT ratio if McCluster hadn’t taken a screen and housed it.
Which is why the blueprint for Auburn’s defense this week is the same as it’s been against Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU: stuff the run and force a throw, then hope the quarterback screws up. It worked against Tennessee. But Auburn couldn’t keep the first part of the bargain against Kentucky, couldn’t keep the second part last week vs. LSU. There’s reasons–Eltoro’s ascension, Snead’s inconsistency–to think this could be the week it comes together again. But there are also reasons–McCluster, the secondary’s rough outings vs. Arkansas and LSU–to think Auburn doesn’t managae either half of that blueprint. And the latter reasons are probably a little more compelling at this stage.
When special teams are on the field
At least punting is about even— if Durst would finally learn to get a kick inside the 20 from midfield, we’d really be getting somewhere–and they’re not anything special in kickoff coverage. But we’re kidding oursevles if we think special teams isn’t going to be every bit as heavily balanced in Ole Miss’ favor as it has been in virtually every other game Auburn’s played this year.
Intangible reason for worry
What, the tangible reasons aren’t enough for you? Fine: it’s an early kickoff. Maybe being at home will help. Maybe it won’t.
Intangible reason for confidence
Auburn’s at home, for starters–maybe that could even tilt the “early kickoff time” disadvantage in the Tigers’ favor?
More importantly, this game seems like a good time for some means to get regressed to. It might be wishful thinking, but I really think the other six games indicate that last week was about as bad as Auburn can play: back at home, not facing an opponent who had a bye week last week, not high off of a 5-0 start, the Tigers should be due for a better performance than we saw last week–just as Auburn put up a reasonable fight last year in Oxford just a week after the dreadful trip to Morgantown.
Meanwhile, the previous two weeks have been a huge leap forward for Ole Miss–even if that’s closer to their “actual” performance level than, say, the abysmal first half against Alabama, a slight step back towards the production of their first five weeks doesn’t seem all that unlikely.
1. No “swing points.” I asked for this last week and saw Auburn turn the ball over three different times in their own half of the field in the first half. It’s pretty simple: Auburn’s never going to beat good teams giving away points. Any points. It’s not going to happen.
2. 75 percent conversions on 3rd- or 4th-and-4 or less. Two weeks ago, as we’ve documented, Todd went 0-for-6 on 3rd- and 4th-and-shorts or -mediums. Last week, Auburn failed to convert 3rd and 4th downs of 1, 1, 1, and 4 yards and finished 3-for-7 in those situations. It’s one thing to miss out on 3rd-and-long (Auburn went 1-for-7 there, with the lone conversion belonging to Caudle), it’s another to set up a makeable 3rd down and blow it.
3. No TDs for McCluster (or anyone) longer than 20 yards. Please, Auburn, at least make them earn it.
Success is / Failure is: Some kind of hope at the end of this game / hopelessness.
Your bottom line
Well … if Snead has a terrible day and if Auburn can contain McCluster in a way they haven’t contained similar players before and if the Rebel front seven fails to show and Auburn clears 5 yards-a-carry and if Todd (and the pass protection) regains some shred of the form he (and it) showed early in the season, just enough to convert a few 3rd downs, and if Auburn doesn’t allow some ridiculous kickoff return and if Auburn catches some breaks on bouncing fumbles, penalty calls, tipped passes and the like … then yes, I can see Auburn winning this game.
But that’s so many if‘s. Mostly what I see happening is a sluggish start by Ole Miss thanks to a slight hangover from the past couple of weeks, a narrow Auburn lead early on, and eventually the superior team–and after Auburn’s display in Baton Rouge, I don’t think there’s any doubt that’s the Rebels–choking off the Tiger attack on defense and making a series of big plays on offense that salt the game away.
I’m at the stage where I’m prepared for that. Prepared for just about anything, really. If Auburn wins, bloody fantastic. If they don’t, well, it’s still not 2008.
And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …
Ole Miss 30, Auburn … you know what? Screw the prediction. Screw Carnac. It’s Friday afternoon. I don’t want to end the week like this. Anyone want to see a hot picture of British actress Lucy Griffiths?
That’s better. War Eagle.
McCluster photo via.