Malzahn (left) has Auburn on the come up.
Saturday’s showdown against the Ole Miss Rebels (7:00 p.m. ET on ESPNU) is setting up to be the perfect opportunity for the Auburn Tigers to claim their biggest victory of 2013.
First-year head coach Guz Malzahn has the Tigers looking in far better shape than the squad that went 3-9 just a year ago. Furthermore, following a humiliating 25-0 defeat to Alabama last weekend, the Rebels present an opponent susceptible to yet another letdown.
If anything, Auburn should look at the Tide’s shutout as a blueprint on how to defeat Ole Miss.
1. Run the Ball Down Their Throats
Unlike the majority of successful teams in the SEC, the Rebels don’t exactly have a great run defense. In fact, the team ranks No. 57 in the category, conceding 149.3 yards per game on the ground.
Alabama exposed that last weekend.
Running backs T.J. Yeldon (17 CAR, 121 YDS, 1 TD) and Kenyan Drake (12 CAR, 99 YDS, 1 TD) both found yards easy to come by. On the night, the Tide ran the ball a season-high 40 times for 254 yards.
And this is from a rushing attack that ranks No. 70 in the nation.
Fortunately for the Tigers, they just so happen to possess a more formidable ground game than Alabama, ranking No. 22 in the category.
Backed by the trio of Tre Mason (338 YDS, 4 TD), Corey Grant (239 YDS, 2 TD) and Cameron Artis-Payne (207 YDS, 2 TD), Auburn has several options from which it can choose to attack Ole Miss’ vulnerable defensive line. Even quarterback Nick Marshall has gotten in on the action, accounting for 148 yards with his legs.
If the Tigers can get their backfield going, they could run away with this one…literally.
2. Win the Third-Down Battle
Regardless of which side of the ball they’re on, the Rebels just don’t have success on third down.
Thus far, the team has only converted 45.5 percent of its third-down opportunities on offense (No. 47). On the other hand, Ole Miss ranks No. 82 in stopping opponents in such situations (41.9 percent).
That fact rose to the forefront against the Tide.
Throughout the night, the Rebels’ struggles continued, as they went 4-of-14 on third down, 1-of-4 on fourth down and only tallied 11 first downs. Meanwhile, Alabama didn’t have too much trouble, going 8-of-17 on third down while moving the chains 21 times.
Unfortunately, this is an area where Auburn is just as bad, if not worse.
Through four games, the team ranks No. 70 in converting third downs (40.0 percent). However, the Tigers have fared a little better at stopping opponents in the same situation, limiting the conversion rate to 39.7 percent (No. 71).
On Saturday, winning this battle becomes incredibly important.
Auburn can’t expect to put away a ranked opponent by recording three-and-outs and kicking field goals.
3. Shut Down Bo Wallace and the Passing Game
After an impressive performance against Vanderbilt in Week 1, Wallace hasn’t topped 200 yards through the air since. However, his mobility (3 rush TD) helps make him a threat to any defense.
Against the Tide, it became clear that shutting Wallace down is the key to slowing down the Rebels.
The junior looked lost against Alabama’s stout defense, throwing for a season-low 159 yards on just 54.8 percent passing. Although he tried to scramble 12 times, Wallace was limited to just five yards all together.
Repeating that process shouldn’t be too tough for the Tigers.
Only twice has an opponent found the end zone through the air against Auburn. Furthermore, the team has held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 116.2.
Sure, the Tigers have allowed a concerning 267.5 yards per game in the passing game. However, as long as the ball stays out of the end zone, I’m sure Malzahn can live with it.
The Ole Miss offense goes when Wallace goes. It’s imperative the Auburn defense leaves him running in circles.
Summing It All Up
The Tigers are still searching for their first marquee win during the Malzahn era.
What will be the result of Saturday's contest?
If the team can stick to the basics and take advantage of the Rebels’ weaknesses, that win could come as soon as Saturday. It might even be enough to boost Auburn back into the Top 25.
But even with a loss, the team shouldn’t lose hope.
Following the embarrassment that was 2012, expectations were low for the Tigers—incredibly low. However, by matching the team’s win total (three) from a year ago in as many games is something to be proud of.
This is an Auburn squad that is on the rise.
That big win is sure to come sooner rather than later.
All stats and rankings are courtesy of NCAA.com