War eagle, everybody! It's time now for another Auburn opponent preview. This week's team is the Ole Miss Rebels, led by new head coach Hugh Freeze. Last time Auburn played a Freeze coach team was in the 2010 season opener, and the Tiger D was gashed for 26 points by Arkansas State. This year, Auburn faces the Rebels in Oxford on October 13th, marking the midway point of the season. Auburn will have played Clemson in Atlanta, Mississippi State in Starkville, Louisiana Monroe, and LSU, then an open date. After the break, Auburn hosts Arkansas, then travels to Ole Miss to play the Rebels.
The Auburn game will be Ole Miss' 7th straight contest. The Rebels open with Central Arkansas, UTEP then the Texas Longhorns in Oxford, followed by road trips to Tulane and Alabama. Ole Miss plays Texas A&M at home, followed by Auburn. It's not a bad schedule for a team trying to get up to speed in new schemes, with at least 3 winnable games in their first 6.
Those who've watched the Freeze offense know that it's an up-tempo spread attack, with lots of screen passes and zone-read runs. The offense forces teams to either be aggressive on defense, or get hacked to death 5-10 yards at a time. Whether this approach will work against the better SEC defenses has yet to be determined. The Rebels need better offensive line play than they displayed the past two seasons, and they need consistent quarterback play. The Rebels return every quarterback they played last season, with the addition of sophomore junior-college signal caller Bo Wallace. Wallace had a redshirt year at Arkansas State in 2010, and knows the Freeze offense. The Rebels have some talent in the receiving corps, led by sophomore Donte Moncrief, who was a freshman All-SEC selection last season. Former quarterback Randall Mackey is being moved around quite a bit as a receiver, runner and wildcat quarterback. The Rebels return experience at running back with junior Jeff Scott, although he reportedly has some academic work to be done to be eligible this fall.
Lost in the disaster that was last season, the Rebels actually had fairly good special teams. The Rebels return a senior trio of strong kicking legs. Bryson Rose was near perfect on place kicks, Tyler Campbell showed good distance on his punts, and Andrew Ritter kicked off inside the 5 yard line most of the time. Sophomore Tobias Singleton and junior Jeff Scott are dangerous kick returners, and Jeff Scott returned punts well for the Rebels last year. The Rebels were also decent covering both punts and kickoffs.
The Rebels defense has the most questions heading into the 2012 season. Last season's unit gave up 32 points per game, 5.4 yards per rush, and only managed 13 sacks in 12 games. In addition, they lost some of their best players up front to graduation. Up front, the Rebels will be looking for their incoming recruiting class to help out, which is never a good thing in the SEC. Most observers expect 5 star end Channing Ward to start from the get-go. The Rebel back seven looks fairly capable, if they can get some help up front. Junior linebacker Mike Marry and junior safety Charles Sawyer lead the Ole-Miss defense, and they are proven SEC-caliber players.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Ole Miss offensive line: A front four of junior Dee Ford, junior Jeffery Whitaker, sophomore Gabe Wright, and junior Corey Lemonier should be pretty special, and Auburn is at least two deep behind the starters. Ole Miss did a lot of mixing and matchup up front in the spring, and they'll need to improve over last year's offense that was sacked 34 times, and only rushed for 3.4 yards per carry. This unit also lost Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie to the NFL. Listed starters at this time are Junior left tackle Emmanuel McCray, sophomore Aaron Morris at left guard, junior Evan Swindle at center, senior A. J. Hawkins at right guard, and junior-college transfer Pierce Burton at right tackle. This is a tough matchup for the Rebels. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Ole Miss backs: Auburn should have some combination of Darren Bates, Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Jonathan Evans starting for this one. The Rebels will tend to use speed and trickeration to get runners free, rather than power-blocking that many SEC offenses favor these days. This should play to Auburn's strength at linebacker, which is speed. If he's eligible, junior running back Jeff Scott is a weapon. Senior Devin Thomas provides a bit of depth, and senior H. R. Greer has that big-body look of a short yardage specialist. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Ole Miss receivers: This season, Auburn has the depth to keep corners fresh. Sophomore Robensen Therezie and junior Chris Davis have the speed to match up with anyone, and there's fast, talented guys two deep behind them. The strength of this Ole Miss team might be the receiving corps. Sophomore Donte Moncrief caught 31 balls as a true freshman in Houston Nutt's run-heavy offense last season, and former quarterback Randall Mackey is an athletic threat. Ole Miss will spread defenses out, and use a lot of players here. Starters are expected to be Moncrief, junior Ja-Mes Logan, and sophomore Collin Moore. Advantage: even.
Auburn safeties vs. Ole Miss secondary receivers and quarterback: Right now, sophomore Erique Florence and junior Demetruce McNeil are penciled in as Auburn starters, but expect sophomore Ryan Smith to play a lot, and also walk-on Trent Fisher. Ole Miss finished spring with junior Barry Brunetti and sophomore Bo Wallace tied atop the depth chart at quarterback. Brunetti is an electrifying runner, but was a liability throwing the ball last season. In Ole Miss' Grove Bowl this spring, Brunetti hit 4 of 10 passes, mostly on screens. Wallace has run the Freeze offense before, and he looked comfortable hitting 16 of 26 passes with 2 touchdowns and only 1 interception. Most folks expect Wallace to end up running the offense, but Brunetti is too much of a weapon scrambling to keep on the bench. Advantage: Even.
Punting: Auburn returns Ray Guy finalist punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can't be returned. Auburn punted 72 times last season, and only allowed 10 returns for 62 yards. Clark pinned 33 of those punts, nearly half, inside the opponent's 20. Ole Miss senior Tyler Campbell averaged 43.6 yards per punt, and had 28 balls out of 72 pinned inside the opponent's 20. Ole Miss only forced 48 punts last season, and Jeff Scott returned 8 of them for 138 yards and a touchdown. Auburn's Quan Bray averaged just 7.4 yards per return on 13 returns. Ole Miss gave up 9.1 yards per return, Auburn gave up 6.2. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn junior kicker Cody Parkey was a weapon last season on kickoffs, hammering 38 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. With the tee spot moved from the 30 to the 35 yard line this season, Parkey could improve that ratio, unless the coaches decide more sky-kicks are in order. Senior Andrew Ritter managed 12 touchbacks on 43 kickoffs for Ole Miss. Return men Jeff Scott and Tobias Singleton averaged 17.7, and 24.6 yards per return for the Rebels last season. Auburn utilized several return guys over the course of the season. Trey Mason averaged 26.4, Onterio McCalebb averaged 30.7, and Quan Bray averaged 24.2. The Rebels gave up 20.9 yards per return, and Auburn gave up 22.1. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn junior Cody Parkey was 13 of 18 on field goal kicks last season, with a few key misses. Ole Miss Senior Bryson Rose was 9 of 11 on field goals last year. Advantage: Ole Miss.
Auburn offensive line vs. Ole Miss defensive line: Auburn's starting offensive line for A-Day from left to right was redshirt freshman Greg Robinson, senior John Sullen, sophomore Reese Dismukes, sophomore Chad Slade, and true freshman Patrick Miller. I'll be shocked if Miller is still starting this fall, but stranger things have happened. The most likely result is for Slade to move to right tackle, and either sophomore Eric Mack or redshirt freshman Christian Westerman to start at right guard. In any event, Auburn is very young, if talented on the o-line. The good news is that most of these guys were bloodied early and often last season. At tackle, Ole Miss returns sophomore starter Byron Bennett, and senior Uriah Grant, who were both thrown into the fire last season as first-year players. Grant was limited in the spring with injuries. There's little depth beyond that. At end, sophomore C. J. Johnson was moved from linebacker to start at one end spot, and junior Cameron Whigham is penciled in on the other side. Many folks expect incoming freshman Channing Ward to take a starting job in the fall. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Ole Miss linebackers: Speed back Onterio McCalebb has been a factor for 3 years in the Auburn offense, and should be again. There was a battle in the spring for the "between the tackles" back, between sophomores Tre Mason and Corey Grant. Sophomore Mike Blakely provided elusiveness in the A-Day game. Junior All-American transfer from Illinois Jay Prosch has been a one-man wrecking crew at fullback. Ole Miss has some linebackers who've played a good bit. Starters will likely be senior Aaron Garbutt and junior Brishen Matthews with junior Mike Marry in the middle. Another player to watch is redshirt freshman Denzel Nkemdiche, who's very fast. Marry is a good-sized body in the middle, but the other guys have had a tendency to get bowled over by SEC lead blockers. Listed weights are Garbutt at 200, Matthews at 202 and Nkemdiche at 197. That's an awfully small bunch in the SEC. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Ole Miss corners: Auburn senior Emory Blake is a proven weapon, but he spent much of last season banged up. A second outside receiver has yet to step up, although Auburn has talented candidates. The speedy sophomore Trovon Reed has the most explosiveness, if he can manage to stay healthy. Senior Travante Stallworth looked good in the A-Day game, and has a good bit of game experience. Senior Wesley Pendleton leads the Ole Miss corners, and was selected as the most outstanding player on the Ole Miss defense during the spring. The other corner is likely to be junior college transfer Dehendret Collins, who's seized the job. Ole Miss has a good bit of speed at corner, but they are undersized beyond Pendleton. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Ole Miss safeties: All eyes will be on the Auburn quarterback, at this point likely to be sophomore Khiel Frazier. Frazier looked good this spring, and is an athletic guy. The chief Auburn secondary receiver is senior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who has had a great Auburn career thus far. Lutz will likely be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. Junior Charles Sawyer leads the Ole Miss secondary, returning after a season with 70 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 9 pass breakups. Senior Tanner Burns and redshirt freshman Chief Brown are running neck and neck at the free safety spot. Sawyer's a good safety, but questions remain on the other side. Advantage: Auburn.
Expect this year's Rebel team to fight harder than last year's, if nothing else. The Freeze offense will likely make some plays, but the real question is whether the Ole Miss defense will stand up to the tough running games in the SEC West. It's good for the Rebels that they play Auburn before facing most of their western brethren, considering their depth situation.
Auburn will have to guard against a let-down in Oxford, after big games with LSU and Arkansas. It's a winnable game for Auburn, but Ole Miss will put up a fight.
Prediction: Auburn is too much up front on both sides of the ball, and cruises to a 31-13 win.