Can the Tigers slow the Rebels down this year?
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. After battling LSU on September 21st, Auburn takes the next weekend off to lick their wounds, and regroup. On October 5th, the Ole Miss Rebels come to town. It’s an experienced Rebel team, returning 19 starters. However, this year’s edition has seen a rash of injuries, and Ole Miss is not the sort of team that has a ton of depth. It will be interesting to see how healed the Rebels are by early October. Despite Rebel troubles the past few seasons, they’ve been able to beat Auburn 2 of the last 5 years. However, the Rebels haven’t won in Auburn since Eli Manning was quarterbacking ten years ago.
Ole Miss was one of the surprise teams in the SEC last season, under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. The Rebels started the season 3-3, spanking the cupcakes on the schedule, and losing big to teams like Texas and Alabama. The Rebels couldn’t hold a big lead, and lost at home to Texas A&M. The next two weeks, the Rebels came up with big wins over imploding Auburn and Arkansas teams, and put themselves in position for a bowl game. Then came a three game swoon, where the Rebels gave up almost 500 yards per game, and were beaten by Georgia, Vanderbilt and LSU. The Rebels then dominated Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, and headed to Birmingham to whack Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bank Bowl.
The Rebels have a similar schedule to last season’s, although they do trade Georgia for Missouri out of the SEC East. The Rebels open the season at Vanderbilt, in the Thursday night SEC kickoff game. The Rebels then take Labor Day weekend off, and then tune up on Southeast Missouri State. Next is a road trip to Austin, Texas to take on the Longhorns. Ole Miss then has an off week, then travels to Tuscaloosa to take on the Tide. Auburn gets the Rebs the week after. The Rebel then have 6 straight home games, against Texas A&M, LSU, Idaho, Arkansas, Troy and Missouri. They finish up with the Egg Bowl in Starkville.
Last season, Rebel fortunes were turned around with the hurry-up spread offense. Ole Miss jumped from 280 yards per game, to 423. One thing that helped was running a lot of plays. Ole Miss ran 10 more offensive plays per game than they had in the previous year under Houston Nutt. It has to be concerning for Rebel fans that starting quarterback Bo Wallace missed spring drills with a shoulder injury. His backups didn’t do terribly well in the spring game, as a patchwork offensive line couldn’t keep the pressure off. If the Rebel line is healthy next fall, it’s a solid group with all five returning starters. If not, there’s precious little depth here. If the Rebels can get healthy up front and at quarterback, they boast a talented, experienced receiving corps and backfield, featuring guys like Randall Mackey, Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief, Korvic Neat and Ja-Mes Logan.
Where the Rebels hope to become more consistent is on defense. During winning efforts last season, the Ole Miss defense did a good job shutting down the run and putting heat on quarterbacks. In their six losses, they gave up almost 500 yards per game and 39 points. This season, the Rebels look to be stronger up front, and there is some depth among younger linemen and linebackers. The Rebels had some young guys step up at times last season at cornerback, but need help here. Nick Brassell could be the answer on the other side, if he clears up eligibility questions. In general, Ole Miss looks stronger and faster this year on defense.
The Rebels return veteran kicker Bryson Rose, but have to replace punter Jim Broadway. Don’t cry for Ole Miss here, though. Monster legged senior Tyler Campbell returns, after taking a redshirt year. He has punted for the Rebels three previous year, 2009, 2010, and 2011, and sports a 44.6 yard career average. Veterans Jeff Scott and Korvic Neat give the Rebels threats in the return game.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Ole Miss offensive line: Auburn will likely go with a tackle rotation of Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeffery Whitaker. Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae will be the primary ends. The Tigers have depth beyond those six guys, but none except Ford have distinguished themselves, either. The Rebels have had some injuries this spring on the line. Right now, the projected starting line is junior Evan Swindle at center, senior A. J. Hawkins and sophomore Aaron Morris at the guard spots, and juniors Pierce Burton and Emmanuel McCray at tackles. This is a big, strong line, but they need to stay healthy. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Ole Miss backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are sophomores Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Neither has a huge amount of game experience, and it’s a concern going into the season. Ole Miss is dangerous. Randall Mackey is a former quarterback who’s fast, athletic and can still sling it. Jeff Scott’s a veteran elusive runner. And the Rebels have brought in a power back in freshman Mark Dodson. Advantage: Ole Miss.
Auburn corners vs. Ole Miss receivers: Auburn is surprisingly deep at corner, and will need good play from starters Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy against a varied and dangerous Ole Miss crew. The Rebels created matchup problems in a number of ways. All of their outside guys are at least 6′ 1”, and most are taller. Junior Ja-Mes Logan and sophomore Donte Moncrief will start, but expect guys like junior Terrell Grant and sophomore Vince Sanders to contribute also. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Ole Miss secondary receivers and quarterback: I’m lumping “star” Justin Garrett in with the safeties, because I’ve done that in earlier previews, and Ole Miss will likely attempt more passes than runs this season. This may be another game where one will see both stars on the field, Garrett and Robensen Therezie. Both have the speed to stay with wide receivers, and Therezie does have a cornerback background. Junior free safety Jermaine Whitehead has really come on this spring, so the real question is who will play strong safety. Right now, converted corner Joshua Holsey is atop the Auburn depth chart there, but senior Demetruce McNeal will return this fall and likely make a serious run. The obvious player to watch here for Ole Miss is junior slot receiver Korvic Neat, who had 25 catches last year. However, backs Randall Mackey and Jeff Scott had 25 and 23 catches, meaning that Ole Miss likes to hit the back out of the backfield. Senior tight end Ferbia Allen deserves mention, but he’s had some bad injury luck, and the Rebels have struggled keeping tight ends healthy this spring. Sophomore quarterback Bo Wallace burst onto the SEC scene last season, and can make the Rebel offense hum. He underwent shoulder surgery after the season and missed spring drills. Advantage: Ole Miss.
Punting: Auburn returns senior punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Clark had 70 punts for a 39.8 yard average, but only 5 were returned, for a total of 4 yards. “Gaudy” is the word when one looks at the statistics of senior Ole Miss punter Tyler Campbell. He’s had 45 career kicks that went 50 yards or more! Ole Miss gave up 24 returns for 179 yards. Ole Miss punts it 5 yards farther than Auburn, but gives back 6 more yards than Auburn does in the return game. Korvic Neat averaged 5.1 yards per return for the Rebels last season, and Auburn’s Quan Bray averaged 8.5. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn didn’t score enough to generate many kickoffs in 2012, but when they did, Cody Parkey nailed 33 of 48 of them for touchbacks. Senior Andrew Ritter returns for the Rebels, another guy who took a redshirt year last season. Ritter has three years of kickoff experience. He has kicked off 177 times, and generated 36 touchbacks. With the kickoff spot moved from the 30 to the 35 last season, expect Ritter’s percentage to go up. When Parkey wasn’t putting the kickoff in the stands, Auburn gave up only 16.6 yards per return. Ole Miss gave up a whopping 24.5 yards per return. Auburn averaged 22.4 yards per kick return last season. With Jalen Walton leading the way, Ole Miss averaged 20.0. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn’s Cody Parkey was 11 of 14 on field goal attempts, and perfect on his extra points last season. Senior Bryson Rose has had a good career at Ole Miss, but he had a bit of a slump last season, hitting 18 of 28. Still, both starting kickers have similar overall stats. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. Ole Miss defensive line: Auburn’s starting A-Day unit of sophomore Greg Robinson, redshirt freshman Alex Kozan, junior Reese Dismukes, junior Chad Slade, and sophomore Patrick Miller looked dominant. In addition, the 2nd line did well against the starting D-line. The current depth chart for Ole Miss has freshman Issac Gross and sophomore Carlton Martin at tackles, and sophomore C. J. Johnson and senior E. J. Epperson at ends. Johnson became a force late last season, and led the team with 6.5 sacks. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Ole Miss linebackers: Auburn finished spring with a trio of dangerous running backs, and more are on the way this fall in the incoming class. Junior Tre Mason is a 1000 yard incumbent, JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne wowed the A-Day crowd with his power and agility, and junior Corey Grant is a threat on the outside. In addition, the Tigers will have bruising senior H-back Jay Prosch paving the way. Junior Mike Marry and senior Aaron Garbutt are currently listed as starters, but one has to think that freshman Denzel Nkemdiche (82 tackles) will be a major factor. Marry had 78 stops. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Ole Miss corners: Auburn’s starters on the outside post-spring are juniors Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed, neither of who have done much previously on the field. Backups Sammie Coates and Ricardo Lewis should add an explosive dimension when they sub in. Ole Miss goes with a nickel defense on most downs, and the starting cover guys coming out of spring are senior Wesley Pendleton, sophomore Senquez Golson, and junior Dehendret Collins. These guys totaled 10 pass breakups and 6 interceptions last season. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Ole Miss safeties: Auburn has some matchup nightmares as secondary receivers, starting with C. J. Uzomah and Quan Bray. Few safeties can keep up with either in a foot race. If a team puts extra corners in to shut that down, Auburn will run over them. Put in beefier safeties, and those guys will be wide open. The real question is who’ll pull the trigger for the Auburn offense. The QB competition is said to be neck and neck between junior Khiel Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. Neither distinguished himself on A-Day. The race will become five-headed for a while when the newcomers arrive this fall. For the Rebels, junior Charles Sawyer and sophomore Cody Prewitt hold down the safety slots. Between them, they broke up 12 passes and were both among the top 4 Rebel tacklers in 2012. Advantage: Ole Miss.
The result of this game may hinge on the quarterback situation for both teams. You’d hope by week 6 of the season that Auburn would be settled at the position, and have a guy playing solid ball. Ole Miss needs Bo Wallace and his shoulder healthy in this one. Backup Barry Brunetti can run, but he hit just 3 of 13 passes in the Ole Miss spring scrimmage.
Comparing rosters and recruiting stars, Auburn should have a heavy advantage, even considering that Ole Miss signed a top five class last February. However, as we all now know, development is the key. Watching Auburn get torn apart in the 4th quarter in Oxford was one of the most shocking times of the year last season. Auburn should be able to win on both lines of scrimmage this season, and make the Rebels miserable on the road. We’ll see what happens in reality.
Prediction: The Tigers hold serve at home, and take down the Rebels in a fast-paced game, 41-27.