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Friday (Night) Preview: Ole Miss

My, what a difference a year makes.

What’s at stake:

I don’t have to tell you that, for Auburn, there is a lot more to lose Saturday than there is to gain.

Sure, we’ll be ecstatic with a win. It’ll close the deal on the final road test of the season before Alabama. It’ll keep us seated safely atop the BCS Rankings for another week. And it’ll give Auburn a chance to lick their wounds next week and heal up and prepare for Amen Corner and beyond.

But a loss would be devastating. As the cliche goes, the more you win, the bigger the games get, and the higher you climb, the further there is to fall.

For one, with a loss you can say goodbye to the cushion in the SEC West that the team worked so hard to earn last week. The possibility that the West could be all locked up before the Iron Bowl goes completely out the window. Beyond that, it wrecks any national championship aspirations that we dare dream about in this stage of the season.

A loss wouldn’t completely ruin the season, and our sights could still well be set on Atlanta and a BCS berth and everything we set out to do before the year, but a loss here wouldn’t be too much fun, either.

For Ole Miss, it’s a chance to dethrone the #1 team in the nation, and celebrate a victory for the ages down in Oxford. A loss would, well, be expected.

Ole Miss has nothing to lose. Auburn has everything to lose.

When Ole Miss has the ball

Their offense is going to remind you a lot of someone else’s we’ve seen.

Ours.

They do a lot of motion and they run a lot of misdirection. Expect a lot of draws, a lot of play fakes, a lot of reverses. They also run a certain empty backfield Slot Sweep option that is going to look very, very familiar.

Their quarterback is, of course, Jeremiah Masoli, the high-profile Oregon transfer that can beat you with his arm and his legs. He is the foundation and the backbone of their offense, as the offense has been built completely around him this year. He’s not undeserving, either, because he’s a very good quarterback, and I shudder where Ole Miss would be this year without him.

They like to throw it a lot with him, and against Auburn’s secondary, you better believe the ball will be in the air early and often on Saturday. They like to spread it out and run short routes, nickel and diming their way down the field, and allowing Masoli to work his magic with his feet when need be. It’s going to remind you a lot of the mid-90s 49ers West Coast Offense… with the only difference being that Steve Young actually had receivers to throw to.

You’re going to see a lot of drops on their end. I don’t know what it is — maybe their jug machine is broken down there in Oxford, or maybe they just think they’re playing Hot Potato when it gets thrown to them, but they just can’t hold on to the ball. Their receiving corp is headlined by senior Markeith Summers, and after that, things get a little hazy as a slew of freshmen and sophomores fill out the depth chart, none of whom have truly stepped up to solidify their role opposite of Summers.

Their most versatile offensive weapon (i.e. their attempt to replace Dexter McCluster) is sophomore wide receiver Jesse Grandy. Grandy, who is also their kick and punt returner, has almost as many rushing attempts as he has pass receptions, so expect to see them try to get the ball in his hands however they can.

Ole Miss’s every down back is junior Brandon Bolden, who runs a lot like Mike Dyer. Behind him is their freshman scat back Jeff Scott, who is quick, elusive, and has been turning a lot of heads over there. Of course, our favorite Rebel, Rodney Scott, is third behind the two of them, but he’ll get a couple carries here and there.

The weakest part of the Ole Miss offense is the offensive line. The group is made up almost entirely of underclassmen to begin with, and it doesn’t help that they’ve been picked at and rotated around so that, in the eight games they’ve played this year, there have been six different combinations of linemen in the starting lineup. But, amazingly, even without much group unity or experience around each other, the Ole Miss offensive line leads the SEC with the fewest sacks allowed all year (which of course is also a testament to Masoli’s elusiveness).

Still, I expect the Auburn defensive line to have a field day on Saturday.

When Auburn has the ball

When you look at the Ole Miss defense, it’s hard to really get a beat on them.

The Ole Miss secondary has been struggling as of late, and things won’t get too much better for them this week as their defense’s leading tackler, junior safety Damien Jackson is banged up, and will be limited if he is able to play at all.

The player Auburn needs to look out for on the Ole Miss defense is senior defensive tackle and NFL prospect Jerrell Powe. He’ll be a tough test for the Auburn offensive line. Auburn faced an elite defensive tackle in LSU’s Drake Nevis last week, but unlike Nevis, Powe is bigger and more of a run stuffer, and it will be key for the Auburn offensive line to contain him and push him out of the way if it wants to set the tone with its running game.

Behind him will be senior middle linebacker Jonathan Cornell, who is basically Josh Bynes’ Rebel doppelganger. He’s built and plays almost exactly the same way, and he’s also the leader and the quarterback of the Ole Miss defense. As far as Auburn establishing the running game, he’s public enemy #2 behind Jerrell Powe.

But besides those two guys, and with Jackson hobbled if not out of the game completely, no one else on their defense really jumps out at you. Their defensive coordinator, Tyrone Nix, specializes in the front seven, so expect them to be solid there. In fact, with the way that Auburn is running the ball right now, I’m sure it’s been first priority all week to slow down Auburn’s four headed rushing monster, and make Cam throw it to beat them.

The thing is, I don’t think Cam will have too much trouble doing just that.

When special teams is on the field

Ole Miss’s placekicker is Byron Rose, who is 8/10 on the year and perfect on extra points, so he is serviceable enough for the Rebels.

The only thing that really jumps out at you in this matchup is that Ole Miss is dead last in opponent’s punt return yards in the SEC, and they gave up a touchdown on a punt return to Arkansas last week. We’ll see if Quindarius Carr can get in position on a couple of them and see if he can make something happen on punt returns for the first time this year.

Intangible reason for worry: You know who this 2010 Ole Miss team reminds me of?

The 2009 Auburn team.

It was a year ago to the weekend that the Tigers hosted the Rebels, coming off a three game losing streak. Auburn put the past behind them, came out and had fun, and ended up with a victory when everyone was doubting them.

Now, a year later, Ole Miss is coming home after two road games and two road losses. Saturday, they’re just going to put the past behind them, act like it’s a new season, and give the BCS No. 1 its best shot.

They’re better than their losing skid indicates, and sooner or later, just like with ’09 Auburn, it will start to show.

Intangible reason for confidence:

For three straight weeks, the No. 1 in either the BCS standings or the AP poll has fallen on a tough road test.

Why is this a reason for confidence? Because in all three cases, ESPN Gameday was there to witness it. Saturday, Gameday won’t be in Oxford. They’ll be all the way across the country in Los Angeles, cursing AP No. 1 Oregon instead of Auburn.

Three Wishes

1. Prevent the big play. Houston Nutt is going to pull out all the stops, and pull all the aces out of his sleeves before this one is over. The defense has to be prepared and ready to stop all of them.

2. Success through the air. I think Auburn will be able to run the ball if it really asserts itself to it, but the easiest way for Auburn to beat this Ole Miss defense is through the air, so I’d like to see the offense go after them in the passing game, and not slip into the mentality of being a one-dimensional offense here down the stretch.

3. No Wes Byrum misses. He’s had a few misses recently, and here I think he needs to get back into a rythm. Besides that, we can’t afford to give Houston Nutt and his team any more chances to stay in the game than they’ll already have.

Success is / failure is: A win / a loss.

Your bottom line

This Ole Miss team is certainly not the same Ole Miss team that lost to Jacksonville State to start the season. They’ve grown, they’ve matured, and they’ve gelled together.

They’ll give Auburn their best punch on Saturday night.

But if there was anybody in the league that I’d take in a road test like this, it’s the battle-tested Auburn Tigers.

I mentioned last week the leadership on this team, and how they would keep the group focused and ready amidst the grand stage of the showdown with LSU. This week, I feel just as confident that they’ll keep them just as focused in a trap game like the one in Oxford. It should be a good one, and exciting early on, but I like Auburn going away.

For fans, it’s an exciting game for Ole Miss because they have a chance to knock off the No. 1 team at home on national television. But for us Auburn fans, it’s just as exciting because with every win, with every victory, Auburn is getting that much closer to this crazy dream that we have in front of us. With every win, we get closer and closer to that special finish to this special year. And on Saturday, the team has a good shot at getting another one of those wins.

And so, in one final attempt to carry on tradition and put up a picture of Johnny Carson followed by a score prediction of tomorrow’s game …

Auburn 34, Ole Miss 23

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