This Saturday night in Oxford, two SEC West teams get another chance – an opportunity to rebound from tough recent losses, and a chance to stay in control of their own destiny in the race for the first College Football Playoff.
It seems strange that both Auburn and Ole Miss are back in the driver’s seat, but that is fitting since 2014 has been plenty strange so far. Only Florida State and Mississippi State remain as undefeated power conference teams, leaving a vast field of one loss teams still squarely in the mix.
It feels a bit like Déjà vu for the Tigers. Just three weeks ago they traveled to Mississippi for a top five matchup playing for the highest stakes they have seen in decades. On Saturday, Auburn travels to Mississippi for a top five matchup against a team playing for the highest stakes they have seen in decades.
Auburn fell flat in Starkville due to turnovers, red zone inefficiency, and a general inability to get out of its own way. Now they have a mulligan, in an eerily similar situation to what happened a few weeks ago.
Ole Miss’s disappointment is more recent. Last week, they were defeated in Baton Rouge by a rapidly improving LSU team. The undefeated season was lost on a heart breaking decision to take a shot at the end zone, rather than settling for a potential game-tying field goal.
Now, just a week later, Ole Miss still finds itself in the top four of the first rankings released by the College Football Playoff committee. The undefeated season is gone, but the Rebels still even control their destiny in the race to win the SEC West and get to Atlanta - something they’ve never accomplished.
Which team will take advantage of this second chance? The winner of this game will be one step closer to the ultimate goal. The loser will not be fully eliminated, but would likely need a ton of help elsewhere in addition to winning the rest of their games.
For Ole Miss, it starts with their defense. They’re extremely impressive both statistically and according to the "eye test." I think they are one of the best SEC defenses in recent memory, with talent and experience at each level. They’ve only given up eight touchdowns all season, and have a knack for forcing and capitalizing on turnovers.
Bo Wallace has been much maligned for his questionable decision making in the past couple years, but has had a much improved senior season. His throw to end the game last weekend was heart breaking for him and all of the Ole Miss community. How will he respond now that a second chance has appeared?
Auburn survived a severe test from a Steve Spurrier team with nothing to lose last weekend. The biggest bright spot was certainly the offense, as Auburn scored a touchdown on six consecutive drives at one point. The running game returned to form, albeit against a pretty terrible defense. I think it was one of Nick Marhsall’s best games since arriving at Auburn.
The most glaring weakness last week, as it has been all season, was the lack of a defensive pass rush. The Tigers did pretty well against the run, but gave Dylan Thompson all day to throw, resulting in explosive plays and sustained drives. Jonathan Jones, Montravius Adams, Cassanova McKinzy and others made big plays in big spots to preserve the win, however.
I have a feeling the Auburn defense will play much better against Ole Miss. Limiting the Rebels’ running attack will be key. And they better play well because I think the Rebels defense is the real deal. But, Auburn has scored over 20 points in every game under Gus Malzahn and has put up 32 rushing/passing touchdowns this year, four times what Ole Miss has given up. Can the Tigers manufacture enough points to win a game of this magnitude on the road?
Here are some keys from my perspective:
- Make Ole Miss Earn Their Points – This seems obvious, but when playing against a great defense, you don’t want to provide the opponent easy points. Turnovers, special teams blunders, and timely penalties can easily ruin an otherwise winning performance. Remember Starkville everyone? We gave Mississippi State way too many short fields and easy scoring opportunities. Can’t do it again.
- Establish The Ground Game On Early Downs – The Ole Miss secondary is opportunistic and scary when you throw a ball up for grabs. It’s crucial to stay out of obvious passing situations as much as possible. Auburn has to control the line of scrimmage and get those 3 and 4 yard gains on first down with our stable of backs and our gifted quarterback. When we throw on first down, we need completions.
- Create Chaos for Bo Wallace – Whether by finding a way to get more pressure (please!) or disguising coverages or even talking trash, we need to make Bo Wallace uncomfortable. He’s extremely dangerous when in a rhythm and in his comfort zone. He’s understandably going to try to redeem himself with his decision making this week. If he presses too much and provides our defense opportunities, we must make the most of them.
As a side note, isn’t it awesome to be playing nationally meaningful games in November for a second straight year?? Remember where we were less than two years ago as 2012 was winding down…
War Eagle, and I hope this trip to Mississippi yields an impressive win!