Auburn vs. Ole Miss: Complete Game Preview
Call it a crossroad.
When the Tigers and Rebels face off Saturday night under the lights in Jordan-Hare Stadium, the meeting will mark a matchup between two teams coming to pivotal points of their seasons.
For Auburn, after a strong 3-1 start to the season—already matching the Tigers' 2012 win total—an upset win over No. 24 Ole Miss would bring the Tigers' newfound success to a new level and set them well on their way to a bowl bid in Gus Malzahn's first season on the Plains.
Across the way, the Rebels are a week removed from a stinging 25-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama and enter Saturday's game hoping to bounce back and prove that they're big-time players in the SEC once again under head coach Hugh Freeze.
A loss for either team would set them back more than any single loss in a 12-game season should—but, the truth is, a 3-2 mark at this point would set either Auburn or Ole Miss well behind in achieving their respective goals for the year, even with the meat of the conference schedule still ahead for both.
And yet, a win could lead either team to big things in the near future. To put it simply, it's a "swing game" in every sense of the term.
For one team, it will mean heartbreak.
For the other, triumph.
Before any of it, here are the basics:
Time: 6 p.m. CT
Place: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
Spread: Ole Miss -3, via Vegas Insider consensus.
Auburn Keys to Victory
Play Four Quarters
It seems simple enough, but it's a task the Auburn Tigers haven't completed yet through their first four games of the season. In every game, Auburn has shown flashes of brilliance on both sides of the ball; and, in every game, the Tigers have gone through lulls full of misfires that see them playing like it's 2012 all over again.
The box score is imbalanced in each of Auburn's results this season. In the opener against Washington State, the Auburn offense shined in the first half while the defense picked up its play in the second half. Against Arkansas State and Mississippi State, the Tigers were on their game in the first and fourth quarters. Against LSU, Auburn looked like a real contender in the second half.
If Auburn could level out that play and cut out the inconsistencies, the Tigers could beat almost anyone on their schedule—including Ole Miss.
Don't Give Up the Big Play
Regardless of whom the world may have favored in this matchup going in, Ole Miss is still going to be playing on the road, under the lights in front of what should be a sell-out crowd in Jordan-Hare Stadium—a place where the Rebels haven't won in 10 years. It's going to take a stiff, solid effort for Ole Miss to come away with a win Saturday—especially if they have to take it from Auburn, and Auburn doesn't give the game away to them.
If the Auburn defense holds firm and doesn't give up the big play to the Ole Miss offense—and conversely, if the Auburn offense doesn't turn the ball over—the Tigers will make things tough for the Rebels, and it will take an impressive effort from the away side to come away with a win.
Run the Football
In Ole Miss's three victories this season, it has held opponents to 114.3 rushing yards per game. In its loss to Alabama last week, the Rebels allowed 254.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide are certainly a different animal compared to Vanderbilt, Southeast Missouri State and the 2013 version of the Texas Longhorns, but the blueprint has been laid out. And, Auburn has—very quietly—put together one of the best rushing attacks in the league on the legs of Tre Mason, Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne and quarterback Nick Marshall.
Malzahn's offense is a run-first attack. If the Tigers can get the running game going early, only good things can happen.
Ole Miss Keys to Victory
Let Bo Wallace Loose
The Auburn defense showed a major weakness earlier this season against Mississippi State when the Tigers allowed sophomore Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott to run all over them—to the tune of 133 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns—while also going 15-of-28 for 213 yards through the air.
Though, Prescott's appearance in the Mississippi State game was a surprise after indications all through that week pointed to Tyler Russell getting the nod for the Bulldogs, there's no doubt that the Ole Miss coaching staff has pored over that performance this week in a film room somewhere in Oxford.
Observers can expect to see junior quarterback Bo Wallace—who has rushed for 125 yards and three scores so far this year—to call his own number and get himself involved in the Rebels rushing attack.
The Auburn defense has had two weeks to prepare for Wallace and the extra dimension he adds to the Rebels offense with his legs. Still, Wallace has proven that he has the athletic ability to make a big impact in any game on his feet.
Gas the Auburn Defense
Much has been made of this week's matchup between Malzahn and Freeze and their hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. But the deciding factor this Saturday could very well rest with both defenses and how they each react to the up-tempo attacks.
In Auburn's only other game this season against fast-paced opposition, Arkansas State had the Tigers defense on its heels at a certain point in the second quarter, and that's an effect that Ole Miss will hope to replicate on Saturday.
For either team, a defense being worn down by an up-tempo offense—while its own offense isn't doing much in the way of helping it stay off the field—can spell big trouble, and that's especially true for the thin, injury-plagued Auburn defense.
Jump Out Early
Regardless of which teams are playing or who is under each helmet on either side, coming from behind on the road in a big-time venue like Jordan-Hare is a tough task, especially for a young squad like Ole Miss.
To make life easier, the Rebels need to jump out to an early lead and hang on from there—because climbing out of a big hole in the middle of an atmosphere like the one set for Saturday night might prove to be just too tough of a task.
Auburn Players to Watch
Junior running back Tre Mason is coming off his most impressive performance of the year after running for 132 yards and two scores against the vaunted LSU defense two weeks ago in slippery conditions in Baton Rouge. Mason will look to carry that momentum into Saturday's game against Ole Miss and spearhead the Tigers rushing attack alongside juniors Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne.
With Grant sliding into his role as the "speed back" and Artis-Payne filling his role nicely as the "power back," Mason is looking to just keep carrying the load—both inside and outside of the tackles—as the Tigers' every-down back.
The Auburn offense starts with the running game, and the running game starts with Mason. His performance could go a long way in deciding just how successful the Tigers can be in moving the ball against the Ole Miss defense.
Junior quarterback Nick Marshall is going to be a main cog for the Auburn offense all season, no matter who the Tigers face, and that will be no different this Saturday against Ole Miss. In any given week, Marshall could turn the corner; the light bulb above his head could flip on; and he could grow into the elite SEC quarterback he has shown the potential to be since stepping foot on campus. At the same time, on any given Saturday, a defense could find a way to solve Marshall and turn him into the turnover-prone quarterback that he was in junior college.
Still, Marshall has proven that he has what it takes to lead Auburn to victory when he's on his game. He just might get that chance once again late in the game on Saturday. Auburn coaches and fans alike can only hope that he's at his best when it counts.
Cornerback Chris Davis could be the best player on the Auburn defense Saturday—if he plays at all, that is.
After an impressive start to the season, in which Davis pulled down 13 tackles and swatted away five passes in two games, the senior missed the Tigers' last two games with an ankle injury.
Malzahn confirmed Wednesday at his weekly press conference that Davis has been back in action at practice this week. His status for Saturday is still up in the air, but it's an "all-hands-on-deck" type of week with such an important game coming up. It would be hard to imagine Davis not seeing at least a few snaps Saturday.
If he's back at 100 percent, the Auburn defense could get a big boost out of his play.
Ole Miss Players to Watch
Last year, Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott ran wild over the Auburn defense, rushing for 137 yards on 21 carries in the Rebels' 41-20 win over the Tigers in 2012.
This season, the senior will be looking to do much more of the same in hopes of bringing in a similar result for Ole Miss.
A lot has changed since then of course. Auburn has clearly grown into a much-improved team in 2013, and the Tigers have revamped their defense entirely under defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, utilizing his 4-2-5 base set.
But as much as some things change, others stay the same, and there are still plenty of familiar faces on the Auburn defense that Scott left in his dust last season. Even if Johnson's defensive scheme does have the Tigers in better position this Saturday, the fact remains that these guys couldn't catch that guy—and Scott could be in for another big night against Auburn.
Wallace's performance could easily go a long way in determining just how well the Rebels fare against the Auburn defense.
The junior could continue to impress and pull off a big win on the road at a crucial point in Ole Miss' season—which would go a long way in proving where he stands in the ranks of the SEC's quarterbacks in one of the league's best quarterback years in recent memory.
But Wallace could still fall back into being the quarterback he was a year ago when he finished with a league-worst 17 interceptions on the season in 2012.
Many still haven't decided whether Wallace is the real deal or not in the SEC—but he can go a long way in proving the doubters wrong with a big win this week.
The Nkemdiche Brothers
Observers across the SEC have heard all about the famed Nkemdiche brothers at Ole Miss—the older brother, Denzel, is the Rebels' best returning tackler from 2012, and the younger brother, Robert, was widely touted as the No. 1 prospect coming out of high school this spring.
Going into Saturday, both brothers will be battling injuries. Denzel will still likely be limited from a torn meniscus that the sophomore suffered in the season-opener against Vanderbilt. Denzel made a speedy recovery after surgery and returned to see action—but not start—last week against Alabama.
Meanwhile, Freeze has said that Robert "may have broken his finger" against Alabama, but the defensive lineman should be able to tape his hand up and be ready to go at full strength Saturday night.
What They Are Saying
Saturday's game will not only be a battle between two SEC teams on the rise, but also one between two friends in Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze.
The two have been good buddies for years, going back to when their innovative, up-tempo offenses were making waves at the high school level.
Back then, the two hung around the same circles and traded notes as they tried to fine-tune their schemes and win state championships.
Fast forward to now, and the two aren't swapping many secrets any more as competitors in the same division in the best conference in college football.
Still, the two remain good friends—but this week it's all business as Freeze described in the weekly coaches' teleconference on Wednesday:
"It's difficult playing your friends. I sent (Malzahn) a text (Sunday) and said, 'I don't enjoy playing my friends. I'll talk to you after it's over.' He sent me one back saying the feeling was mutual. We don't enjoy it, but we've got to do it."
Like Freeze, Malzahn also had nothing but good things to say about his counterpart and upcoming opponent during his Tuesday press conference:
He is definitely a friend. He is one of my best friends in this business. We came from a similar background and a similar path. He is very talented. He is good at what he does. He is a great communicator. He is a very good football mind.
We were two guys blessed enough to be given the opportunity to come from high school to college. The guys that came from high school to college stick together. There are a group of us guys that stick together and compare notes and stuff like that. Now that we are in the same conference it is a little bit different, but we still have a very good relationship outside of football.
The two will likely have a long 50-yard-line chat prior to kickoff Saturday, and they'll likely shake hands at midfield afterwards as is customary. Then, Malzahn says, things will "go back to normal."
Auburn 26, Ole Miss 23
Not many liked Auburn's chances in this game going into the season—and not many like Auburn's chances now.
But while most may have Ole Miss favored to win Saturday, all signs point to Auburn pulling off the upset at home.
Auburn has had this game circled on its calendar as a momentum game all offseason, which could lead to big things for the Tigers moving forward if they come out with a win. Meanwhile, the Rebels are coming off a momentum game of their own—when they came up disappointed a week ago in Tuscaloosa.
The Rebels have barely had the chance to pick themselves up from that 25-0 loss before having to turn around and play Auburn on the road in front of another packed crowd.
Across the way, the Tigers have sat back waiting, using last week's bye to prepare and get healthy.
The Rebels are a young team with a bright future ahead of them, but that youth could prove to be a disadvantage when the Ole Miss coaching staff asks those players to trot out onto the field at Jordan-Hare and perform in one of the most pressure-packed atmospheres in the South for the second week in a row.
At the end of the day, it might just be too tall of a task for the Rebels.
And at the end of the day, Auburn just might move to 4-1.
Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.