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Halloween Eve in the Grove!


Even after pulling out a last-minute Masoli, Giggity can't beat the Tigers!

     War Eagle, everybody! This week, we'll preview the Ole Miss Rebels. Auburn has yet another Halloween weekend with the Rebs, visiting Vaught-Hemmingway stadium on October 30th, Halloween Eve. With the loss of 24 seniors in the off-season, most pundits have picked Ole Miss to finish last in the SEC West. History suggests that it's a mistake to pick against Houston Nutt. While it's been correctly said that Nutt is crazier than a sack full of rabid weasels, he's never finished last in his previous 12 seasons as an SEC head coach. He's been picked last before, but there have always been a couple of surprising games where Nutt's bunch just kicked the stew out of the favorite.


     Much has been made over the recent addition to the Ole Miss roster of troubled former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. I've read the articles that blast Houston Nutt as a "dirty coach" because of this move. I've read the P. R. fluff on how Masoli was supposedly a "victim of circumstance." My own gut tells me that Masoli's like that kid you ran with in the neighborhood. You'd go to egg a neighbor's house, and Masoli would be the kid that idly came along with no real intent, didn't run when the door opened, and got caught with the sack full of eggs. Multiple times. It will be interesting to see him up against the coverage schemes of some of the wily SEC defensive coordinators. If nothing else, Houston Nutt has found a replacement in the Wild Rebel formation for Dexter McCluster. Masoli can run like a scalded dog, and has that Tebow-size to truck over incautious defensive backs. We've seen Nutt have success in the past with a run-specialist QB, in Matt Jones.


     It's not necessarily a rosy situation for Masoli on offense. The Rebels lost 90+ percent of their offensive production in the off-season. The entire middle of the offensive line is going to be new. And the Rebels now have Dave Rader as their offensive coordinator. Alabama fans of the past decade will understand what I'm talking about. Rader's offenses use a variety of formations. They line it up, look professional and dangerous, then run a 5 yard hitch or handoff up the middle 90% of the time. At least two or three times per game, Rader will come up with a play that totally bamboozles the defense, probably for a score, or at least 50 yards. Somebody gets wide open with the ball, with acres of empty grass in front of them. You can also COUNT on the fact that Rader will not call that play again in the game, and possibly not for the rest of the season. Rebel fans will have some excitement here, and tons of frustration.


     Defensively the Rebels return most of a very stout defensive line. Nutt is banking on JUCO transfer Wayne Dorsey to replace departed all-star end Greg Hardy, but there is a ton of veteran, talented beef inside. The linebacker corps has solid returning veterans, and some depth. The big question on the Rebel D is at corner, where both starters must be replaced. Nutt had success in the spring promoting junior Marcus Temple and senior Jeremy McGee, but it was against a green offense. In the matchup against the Auburn offense, philosophy is a problem for the Rebels. Houston Nutt favors a nine-in-the-box scheme, with players aggressively chasing the ball and the secondary in man coverage. Against Auburn's offense last year, this resulted in one of the worst days of the year, as the Rebels were burned on big plays, and gave up 401 yards and 33 points on the day. This year, look for Rebel defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix to emphasize assignment-football against the Tigers.


     Ole Miss had solid special teams a year ago, but has some holes to fill this year. Accurate kicker Joshua Shene is gone, as is the punt returning tandem of Dexter McCluster and Marshay Green. All is not lost, though, as Ole Miss has decent coverage units returning, and a good kick returner in Jesse Grandy. Sophomore punter Tyler Campbell averaged 44.0 yards a punt a year ago. That's a monster year for a freshman!


Unit Matchups after the jump!


Auburn defensive line vs. Ole Miss offensive line: Auburn should field a solid unit similar to a year ago among the starters, with significantly more depth. Last season, with ends Antonio Coleman and Antoine Carter healthy, the pass rush really got to Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead. Coleman is gone, but Carter returns, and he'll be joined by veteran end Michael Goggins, seriously upgraded Dee Ford, and newcomer pass-rush specialist Joel Bonomolo. Auburn had more trouble in the middle stopping the run against Ole Miss last season, but against a young interior line, Auburn should fare better in 2010. Ole Miss returns junior Bradley Sowell on the line, and he should be an all-star candidate. Sophomore Bobbie Massey, who had 6 starts in 2009 fills the other tackle spot. In the middle though, it's nothing but youth. Advantage: Auburn.


Auburn linebackers vs. Ole Miss backs: Auburn will rely on the senior experience of Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, with help from sophomore Jonathan Evans. Last year, Eltoro Freeman had one of his better games at linebacker, and Auburn frustrated the Ole Miss offense for much of the game. Dexter McCluster had a big game on the Tigers, but other Rebel backs managed only 31 yards on 11 carries. Ole Miss has some options to tote the rock with, including veterans Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis. We're just not clear yet on who's going to block for them. Sophomore fullbacks E. J. Epperson and H. R. Greer hope to open holes. Chasing quarterback Jeremiah Masoli will be a big problem for all of the Auburn linebackers. Advantage: Even.


Auburn corners vs. Ole Miss receivers: Shay Hodge had a good day against the Auburn secondary in 2009, but he was the only Ole Miss receiver who did. Hodge is gone, but Auburn returns veteran corners Neiko Thorpe and Demond Washington, as well as backup T'Sharvan Bell. Ole Miss has taken some blows at receiver. Graduation decimated the starters, and reserves Andrew Harris and Pat Patterson have left the team as well. For now, the Rebels appear to be going with senior Markeith Summers and sophomore Jesse Grandy as the starting receivers. Advantage: Auburn.


Auburn safeties vs. Ole Miss secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn's crew of veterans Zach Etheridge, Aaron Savage and Mike McNeil are looking more and more like a go for this fall. There are a LOT of starting snaps and big plays among that bunch. One really has to question whether Ole Miss secondary receivers are relevant. On the Ole Miss roster last year, no one that was not named Hodge or McCluster caught more than 20 balls. Out of the backfield, Brandon Bolden caught 20 balls for a 10.4 yard average. Penciled in as the new tight end starter is sophomore Ferbia Allen, who managed 6 receptions for 46 yards in 2009. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli will be a load running the ball, but he had a tendency to disappear as a passer against the better defenses while he was at Oregon. Bear in mind that Etheridge, Savage and McNeil have successfully defended Tim Tebow, Jemarcus Russell, and other big-time SEC quarterbacks. Advantage: Auburn.


Punting: The Auburn heir apparent at punter is senior Ryan Shoemaker, who was a freshman All-SEC in 2007. Shoemaker sports a career 41.5 yard average, and by all accounts is kicking the ball well this summer. Ole Miss returns sophomore punter Tyler Campbell, who had a sensational freshman year with a 44.0 average. Jesse Grandy appears to be cemented as the new Rebel punt returner, while Auburn is still not settled on a starter. Ole Miss coverage gave up 8.4 yards per return in 2009, Auburn gave up 12.9. Advantage: Ole Miss.


Kickoffs: Auburn senior Wes Byrum will likely manage the kickoff duties in 2010, having posted a career 62.4 yard average on 83 kickoffs. Sophomore Andrew Ritter will kick off for the Rebels. As a freshman last year, he blasted a 65.3 yard average, with a whopping 12 touchbacks. Auburn has options for returners, although a starter hasn't been named. Mario Fannin (21.2 yards per return) and Onterrio McCalebb (24.7) had success last season, and Demond Washington (31.1 yards) was a late addition who took one to the house against Georgia. Jesse Grandy returns for Ole Miss, after averaging 25.7 yard per return in 2009. Ole Miss gave up 22.8 yards per return, Auburn gave up 23.5. Advantage: Ole Miss.


Place kicking: Auburn returns senior Wes Byrum, who's coming off a near-perfect year, hitting 14 of 15 field goals and all of his extra points. Ole Miss must replace accurate veteran Joshua Shene. Top contenders are sophomore Bryson Rose and junior David Hankins. The best Houston Nutt can say about his guys is that they are "a little inconsistent." Advantage: Auburn.


Auburn offensive line vs. Ole Miss defensive line: It's the battle of the titans in this one. Auburn has some fearsome linemen up front, and a lot of starts over the past four years. Seniors Lee Ziemba, Byron Issom, Mike Pugh and Mike Berry will be joined by JUCO transfer Brandon Moseley to form a tough front line. Against a good Ole Miss line last season, Auburn's guys paved the way for a 401 yard day against the Ole Miss defense. JUCO transfer Wayne Dorsey will replace departed all-star end Greg Hardy for the Rebels. A stout quartet of seniors fill out the rest of the line; end Kentrell Lockett, and tackles Jerrell Powe, Lawon Scott, and Ted Laurent. It's a mammoth challenge, but Auburn was up to it a year ago, and should be again. Advantage: Even.


Auburn backs vs. Ole Miss linebackers: Ben Tate and Mario Fannin both averaged 5.8 yard per carry against Ole Miss last year. Tate is gone, but Fannin returns, along with Onterrio McCalebb and incoming sensation Michael Dyer. As much as most folks rave about the Ole Miss defensive line, the linebackers may be the real strength of the team. Seniors Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker are returning starters, and they are joined by sophomore Joel Knight, who has experience. As fierce as these guys are, they had a tendency in last year's Auburn-Ole Miss game to run themselves out of position. Advantage: Auburn.


Auburn receivers vs. Ole Miss corners: The deepest position on Auburn's 2010 squad appears to be at receiver, led by star junior Darvin Adams. Adams and Terrell Zachary had 151 yards against the Rebels in 2009, and that was against veteran corners. This year, Ole Miss replaces both, with junior Marcus Temple and senior Jeremy McGee. Advantage: Auburn.


Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Ole Miss safeties: Auburn should have a number of talented secondary receivers, including sophomore tight end Phillip Lutzenchirchen. The Tigers often line up outside receivers in the slot, and throw a lot of passes to backs out of the backfield. There are at least a half-dozen such candidates who can break a screen pass the distance. In addition, quarterback Cameron Newton has a strong arm, and is a threat as a runner. Ole Miss returns senior starter Johnny Brown at strong safety, but has turned to JUCO transfer Damien Jackson to try and shore up the free safety spot vacated by the departed Kendrick Lewis. Advantage: Auburn.


     Ole Miss faces a number of difficult matchups in this game. The Rebels have a stable of backs, but the vast majority of them are solid between-the-tackles pounders. Considering that Ole Miss is young at the blocking positions between the tackles, it's a problem. Jeremiah Masoli will no doubt be a dynamic element of the Rebel offense, but can he carry the team against an SEC defense? We'll know more when we see the Rebels play. Right now, I think most experts are skeptical, considering how Masoli played against better PAC-10 defenses in the past.


     Ole Miss had their second worst defensive performance of the year against Auburn in 2009, and has to try again in 2010 against an upgrade in Tiger talent, with two new starting corners.


     Rebel special teams are solid, and headlined by strong-legged punters and kickoff men. Auburn gave up a kick return touchdown to Jesse Grandy last year, and must clamp down in coverage this season.


     There is a bit of a myth I hear from time to time about Houston Nutt "having Auburn's number." Nutt's actual head-coaching record against Auburn is... 6-6. Six and six, the very definition of mediocrity. There have been some bad losses to Nutt teams, but I also remember sitting in the stands when we led a Nutt team with senior quarterback Matt Jones 30-0 in the second quarter. Oh, what fun THAT was!


     This time last year, I unleashed a fire storm of internet verbosity over my Auburn-Ole Miss prediction. Despite a superior Ole Miss team on paper, I picked the Rebels to lose 34-27. There was outrage among the Rebel faithful, and arguments raged. Even Bama and LSU supporters jumped in. I may yet be an idiot, but I'd point out that the final score of Auburn 33, Ole Miss 20 wasn't that far off. I saw matchup problems for the folks from Oxford, and those have only tilted further in Auburn's favor since 2009.


Prediction: Masoli's a handful to chase down, and the Rebels play a much wiser game on defense in 2010. Still, Auburn brings the tempo and experience advantage to Oxford, and leaves with a 27-17 victory over the Rebels.