7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Ole Miss -2
With the first College Football Playoff Rankings posted this past Tuesday, it was no surprise to see three of the top four teams call the SEC home, particularly the Western Division, which has been unbelievably competitive this season. Selected Third and Fourth by the Committee are Auburn and Ole Miss, who clash tonight in Oxford in a matchup that will surely drop one of these teams from the Top Four. The third-ranked Auburn Tigers (6-1, 3-1 in SEC), represented the SEC West in the Conference Title Game last season, then went on to narrow defeat in the final BCS Championship Game. This season, Gus Malzahn has the benefit of having one of the more experienced teams in the league, particularly at Quarterback where Nick Marshall continues to develop his game in his second year as the starter. But now begins the true test for the Tigers, who sit ready to face a murderer’s row of opponents; over their final five games of the regular season, in addition to tonight’s contest, they will travel to ninth-ranked Georgia before closing out at Tuscaloosa against fifth-ranked Alabama in the annual Iron Bowl.
After sustaining their first loss of the season against top-ranked Mississippi State, Auburn picked themselves up off the mat last Saturday with a 35-21 victory at home over South Carolina in a contest that was much closer than the final score would indicate. Malzahn’s charges withstood rally after rally from the Gamecocks, who successfully converted on a whopping five Fouth Downs, and even managed to recover an Onside Kick. If not for the second of Jonathan Jones’ two interceptions late in the Fourth Quarter, the meeting could have had a very different outcome. However, the Tigers’ vaunted ground game was in rare form that night, running wild for a season-high 395 yards. Cameron Artis-Payne, the SEC’s second-leading rusher, accounted for 167 of that figure, adding to his total of 831 this season. Marshall added another 89 yards on ten carries for three scores, while putting together an efficient day with his arm on 12-of-14 passing for another 139 yards and a touchdown.
And speaking of that rushing attack, there is no doubt that it will be the difference-maker in tonight’s contest. After all, it has on a number of occasions in the past; since 1971, Auburn is 14-0 against Mississippi when rushing for at least 200 yards, and in last year’s meeting trampled them to the tune of 282 yards ain a 30-22 victory, despite being outgained overall by 89 total yards. This should make for a fascinating matchup against the defense in the nation. Last weekend, LSU ran the ball between the tackles a ridiculous 40 times for 177 yards against the Rebels’ staunch defense. However, Malzahn’s attack is most effective when running outside the tackles, bashing the opposition on 1.014 yards, sixth-best in the country and tops in the SEC.
Meanwhile, after starting the campaign a perfect 7-0, Ole Miss (7-1, 4-1 in SEC) suffered their first defeat of the season in a grueling 10-7 loss at Baton Rouge last Saturday. Now, Hugh Freeze’s charges must avoid losing back-to-back contests, lest they be essentially eliminated from the Top Four Rankings. On the strength of their nasty defense dubbed the “Landsharks”, the Rebels have been able to compensate for a fairly average offense, or at least that was the case up until last weekend against LSU. In a painful-to-watch defensive struggle that may have set offensive football back a few years; between both teams there were just seventeen points and just 318 passing yards, with just 176 of that figure belonging to the visitors, a season-low for Ole Miss, along with a total of five turnovers.
However, now we’ll finally get to see what this group is really made of now that they’re faced with some adversity. Mississippi has gotten to this point largely on the play of their dominant defense, which is the only unit in the country that has yet to allow More than 20 points. Through eight outings, the Rebels have allowed a scant 9.3 points (1st overall) on 305.0 yards, including 187.0 yards against the pass and another 118.0 yards against the rush. With that said, then 24th-ranked LSU took them to the woodshed in the trenches, rushing for a grand total of 264 yards on 55 carries, the most that the Freeze’s kids has relinquished this season. Normally this would lbe cause for concern with Auburn’s prolific ground game on deck, but after sustaining a number of injuries on that side of the ball Freeze and Co. must be sounding the alarms in Oxford. Brothers Robert (knee) and Denzel (ankle) Nkemdiche both left last weekend’s game due to injury, with the latter already proud ounces as Out for tonight’s tilt, while All-SEC Safety Cody Prewitt also departed with an ailing shoulder.
With all that said, the Rebels’ defense still yielded just ten points, so one could hardly lay the blame at their feet. The biggest culprit in their demise last Saturday was the inept play of their compatriots on offense, particularly Senior Quarterback Bo Wallace. The much-maligned gunsliger completed a miserable 14-of-34 passes for just 176 yards, a touchdown and and interception, his first in SEC-play this year. Apart from a fifteen-yard touchdown toss to Cody Core in the First Quarter, Wallace struggled to simply maintain drives against the Tigers’ relentless defense. The knock on him throughout his collegiate career is his penchant for mistakes, evidenced by 27 interceptions over the course of his Sophomore and Junior campaigns. As a Senior however, Wallace has shown much better poise in the pocket and has improved his decision-making considerably with eighteen touchdowns to seven interceptions. Freeze will need him to rebound quickly tonight to keep up with Auburn’s explosive offense, especially if the defense shows signs of struggling with their injuries. In last year’s meeting, Wallace was 25-of-48 for 336 yards, with a pair of touchdown tosses and a pair of picks. Keep an eye on his protection throughout the contest, as Left Tackle Laremy Tunsil is Questionable with a strained bicep suffered against LSU.