Halloween Hangover in the Grove
By Acid Reign
After a titanic Thursday night battle in West Virginia, the Auburn Tigers take another weekend off, then travel to Oxford, Mississippi, to play the Ole Miss Rebels on November 1. Ole Miss was the doormat of the SEC Western Division, last season, but figures to be much improved this year. Two players who may be major factors in this game, are former Auburn players: running back Enrique Davis, and linebacker Patrick Trahan. I suspect they’ll have little problem getting fired up for this game.
At the end of last season, the Ole Miss coaching staff was fired. In the meantime, Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt was in the process of haggling out a generous severance package from the Razorbacks. Just hours after Nutt’s resignation became official, he was named the new head coach at Ole Miss, a coup for the Rebels. The Arkansas administration was left with a face-full of very expensive egg!
Nutt brings in the bulk of an experienced coaching staff from his previous gig, including defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, a former Auburn superstar. Veteran coordinator Tyrone Nix will handle the defense. Nix has extensive experience coordinating the defense at Southern Miss, and was an assistant under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. Houston Nutt brings a former Ole Miss hero and quarterback home to run the offense, Kent Austin. Austin’s recent pedigree is all in Canada, running potent offenses at Toronto, then as head coach of the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, who won the CFL title, last season. Austin is the reigning CFL Coach of the Year.
Despite this being a road game, the schedule favors the Tigers. Vaught Hemingway Stadium is not as intimidating as say, Tiger Stadium or Florida Field. Auburn will have had a long week before the West Virginia game, and a weekend off before the Ole Miss game. Hopefully, that will translate into fresher legs. Meanwhile, Ole Miss will be coming off a brutal October: Florida in Gainesville, South Carolina for homecoming, a week off, then Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Arkansas in Fayetteville.
While former head coach Ed Orgeron battled discipline issues and image problems, he did not leave the Rebel cupboard bare. Ole Miss returns a surprising amount of talent. Will Houston Nutt be able to translate that into instant success? For much of Nutt’s career at Arkansas, he was known as the coach who “did more with less.” In later years, despite having talents like Matt Jones, Darren McFadden, and Felix Jones, Nutt failed to win an SEC title or bowl game, and became known to Razorback fans as the coach who “did less with more.” Regardless of how one views that argument, there’s little doubt that fundamentals and discipline will be greatly upgraded, this fall, for the Rebels.
Ole Miss is a veteran football team that returns 16 starters and both kicking specialists. The Rebels were actually a respectable defense last season, but they got little help from the offense. A stout, talented defensive line returns, which is now likely to get a tremendous boost when long-time academic problem-child Jerell Powe finally gets eligible. Powe will be very green, but he’s an absolute monster, physically. He’s 340+ pounds of pure muscle and aggression. Add in sometimes superstar All-SEC end Greg Hardy, and ALL SEC tackle Peria Jerry, and this is a line that will cause LOTS of problems for any offense. Houston Nutt is very concerned about his linebackers and secondary, and has moved two offensive players to start at cornerback. Former Auburn linebacker Patrick Trahan could provide a much needed boost, if he does in fact become academically eligible.
Offensively, Ole Miss will miss the stalwart back Benjarvus Green-Ellis. However, they return a stout offensive line that run-blocks well. While Rebel fans are expecting Enrique Davis to step off the bus and become the bulk of the Ole Miss offense, there is also Junior Cordera Eason, who had a solid spring. The Ole Miss passing game has been dormant since Eli Manning left, but the Rebel faithful are extremely high on Texas transfer Jevan Snead. Snead was a big-time Texas recruit who lost out to freshman Colt McCoy, and transferred to Ole Miss, and now is eligible as a redshirt sophomore. Snead has a great arm, and capable targets Mike Wallace, Shay Hodge, and Dexter McCluster to throw to. The glaring weakness on this offense is experience. While the line and receivers are veterans, the runners, throwers, and tight ends have almost NO SEC playing time going into this year. However, by game nine, they should be dangerous.
On special teams, Ole Miss has a pair of good return men in Marshay Green and Mike Wallace, but not much else. Starters return, but this unit was near the bottom of the SEC in most categories, last season. Penalties, short kicks, poor coverage, and poor blocking were prevalent, and the Rebels missed several short field goals.
Auburn defensive line vs. Ole Miss offensive line: Senior tackle Michael Oher is a terror for the Rebels. He’s mostly noted as a stout run-blocker, but this season, he’s slimmed down to 318 pounds, and looks to be more rounded at the position. Other veterans return as well, and they are huge. Junior guard John Jerry is 350 pounds. The lightest of the Rebel starting linemen is junior guard Reid Neely, at 310 pounds. While the Ole Miss line is huge and powerful, they’ve had problems with quick defenders, and few are quicker than Auburn’s Antonio Coleman and SenDerrick Marks. If the Houston Nutt history holds true, look for less zone-blocking, and more iso-schemes, particularly with young runners. Auburn will try to counter by slanting and stunting. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. Ole Miss runners: The only returning running back for Ole Miss with experience is junior Cordera Eason, who had all of 3 carries for 6 yards, last season. He’s a solid, 225 pound power back, but also has decent speed and good hands. The Rebels are counting on incoming junior-college transfer Enrique Davis making an immediate impact. There’s a reason Auburn fans were so fired up about Davis, a year ago. Davis has Darren McFadden-level size and speed, and should be a prototypical Houston Nutt weapon. There’s not much but injuries and walk-on level talent behind Eason and Davis, at the tailback position. Ole Miss has a veteran, heavy-duty fullback in the 248 pound Jason Cook. Auburn will counter with a deep, fast linebacker corps. Given Auburn’s ability to tackle the great backs last season, I think they’ll be able to shut down two newcomers. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Ole Miss receivers: Ole Miss returns a pair of experienced outside receivers in senior Mike Wallace and junior Shay Hodge. Hodge is a solid possession receiver, but he does not have the speed to get away from Auburn’s corners. Wallace does have dangerous speed and moves (averaging 18.8 yards per catch!), but has been very inconsistent in the past. Expect receivers coach Ron Dickerson to emphasize crisper route-running, and lots of work with the juggs machine. Auburn has a good corner in Jerraud Powers, and talent in Aaron Savage and Walter McFadden. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Ole Miss secondary receivers and quarterback: For the most part, both teams are young here. Ole Miss slot receiver, junior Dexter McCluster, is dangerous. He’s a small, quick scat-back type, and will be used in a variety of ways. Ole Miss is young at tight end, with a junior college transfer taking over for the departed Robert Lane. Junior Gerald Harris was noted as a recruit with blocking skills, but he’ll have to work on his hands, to play in a Houston Nutt offense. Quarterback Jevan Snead is supposed to be the real deal, but this will be his first year facing SEC defenses. There is no experience at quarterback, for the Rebels. However, by game nine, inexperience won’t be quite as big a factor. Auburn’s sophomore safeties Zack Etheridge and Mike McNeil do have a year of playing experience, and they are talented. Slight advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn has three punters who can boom it, Ryan Shoemaker, Patrick Tatum, and Clinton Durst. In addition, Auburn was one of the better punt-return coverage units in the league, giving up only 6.5 yards per return. The Ole Miss return game was pretty much abysmal. Even with a 44-yard touchdown return, Marshay Green averaged only 4.0 yards per return. Ole Miss punter, senior Justin Sparks, averaged 39.7 yards per kick. Many of his kicks were low, line-drive kicks, which hung his coverage team out to dry. Ole Miss coverage gave up a whopping 12.5 yards per return. Veteran Auburn return man Robert Dunn averaged 9.4 per return. You’d have to think that Houston Nutt and special teams coach James Shibest will improve Ole Miss here, but how much? Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn fans were very unhappy with the kickoff unit last season, but it did improve late in the season. Building on an improved coverage package, as well as having a healthy Wes Byrum kicking off, Auburn hopes to give up significantly less than the 21.2 yards per return of last season. Ole Miss covered slightly better than Auburn, giving up 19.9 yards per return, but there were a lot of short kicks. Ole Miss averaged kicking it to the 17 yard line, to Auburn’s average of the 13. Ole Miss returns the dangerous Marshay Green, who averaged 23.4 per return last season. Auburn counters with Tristan Davis. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Placekicking: Auburn returns outstanding sophomore kicker Wes Byrum. Despite being injured for most of the season, Byrum hit 14 of 15 kicks inside 40 yards and 17-23 overall. Ole Miss returns junior Joshua Shene, who was 9 of 13, inside 40 yards, and 11 of 17, overall. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Ole Miss defensive line: Last season, Auburn gashed the Ole Miss D for 234 yards on the ground, but it was a line minus star end Greg Hardy, who was suspended. Auburn returns all starters on a pretty good O-line that has depth. Ole Miss returns stalwart senior Peria Jerry inside, an All-SEC selection a year ago. While 303 pound sophomore Ted Laurent is penciled in at the moment, at the other inside position, watch out for Jerell Powe. Due to new, relaxed eligibility rules on partial qualifiers, Powe is likely to finally become eligible after three years of academic struggle. Junior Greg Hardy is a force at one end position, but needs to work on consistency and run-stopping. On the other side, junior Marcus Tillman has size and talent, but thus far has failed to live up to expectations, with zero sacks a year ago as a starter. Advantage: Even
Auburn backs vs. Ole Miss linebackers: Auburn is fast, veteran, and dangerous at running back, despite not having an experienced lead blocker. On paper, the Ole Miss linebackers look pretty talented. On the field, they’re all converted secondary folks that had trouble making plays at the point of attack last year. They are fast, but they had a lot of trouble getting runners down quickly. Many of their tackles were made down the field. Junior Ashlee Palmer is probably the star of the linebackers, for now. Sophomore Jonathan Cornell is experienced, but had trouble getting off blocks. Sophomore Allen Walker looked ready to lock down another starting spot, but he’s been suspended on a DUI incident. The wildcard in the linebacker corps is incoming transfer Patrick Trahan. A year ago at Auburn, Trahan had won the starting strong-side linebacker slot, before leaving school on academic issues. And we all know well Auburn’s linebackers turned out last season. Ole Miss has experience and options at linebacker, but not enough top-shelf SEC talent. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Ole Miss corners: Both teams’ units look to be improved, but are largely unproven. Auburn has a pair of veteran, possession receivers in Rod Smith and Montez Billings, and the less experienced, faster guys stepped up well this spring. New threats like James Swinton and Chris Slaughter emerged. Houston Nutt faced a pretty desperate situation at corner, when he took over the Rebel squad. Nutt immediately moved two offensive prospects, junior wide receiver Marshay Green, and junior running back Cassius Vaughn. Green’s on the small size, for an SEC corner, but he has speed and natural moves. He’ll be the Rebels’ best cover corner. Vaughn will likely be a co-starter, with senior Dustin Mouzon. As a starter last season, Mouzon was a solid tackler, but often did not play the ball well, in the air. UCLA transfer Jeremy McGhee has the speed to play corner, if he can learn the position. He’s a former running back and track star. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Ole Miss safeties:Auburn has a pair of first year quarterbacks, Kodi Burns and Chris Todd. Auburn’s secondary receivers have the potential to be special, if they hold onto the ball. Senior slot receiver Robert Dunn is lightning quick with great moves. Tight end Tommy Trott runs great routes, and has good speed. In addition, there are Auburn reserves who can make plays in the slot. Ole Miss returns a pair of fast, veteran safeties, which they’ll need against Auburn’s spread. Senior strong safety Jamarca Sanford is a hitter who’s played both linebacker and safety. Sanford does need to play the pass better, and he’ll have to hang with Tommy Trott. Sophomore free safety Johnny Brown has good speed, but has had the consistency issues typical of a young player. Both Ole Miss players are strong in run support, but have been suspect against the pass. That’s not good, facing a team that likes to spread it out. Advantage: Auburn.
This is a worrisome game, primarily because when Houston Nutt has linemen to work with, he’s been dangerous. Auburn and Ole Miss seem very evenly matched on both lines of scrimmage. Nutt’s schemes aren’t so terribly complicated that new talent can’t pick it up. The wildcard is offensive coordinator Kent Austin. He’s not coached in the SEC. Will he run a Canadian-style pro-passing offense? Not likely. Houston Nutt has been notorious for bringing in offensive coordinators and dumbing down the offense to a run-heavy scheme. Ole Miss has the blockers to do exactly that, but will the new backs come through? Run-stopping is Auburn’s strength.
Ole Miss appears to have a good, if not great defensive line. In the past, the back seven had trouble coming up and tackling runners before they got five yards or more. In addition, Ole Miss coverage tended to be spotty. My guess is that Nutt and Tyrone Nix will shore these weaknesses up, and Ole Miss will be pretty salty on defense. Auburn should be more athletic at the skill positions. If the Auburn line can keep Greg Hardy and Jerrell Powe from disrupting things in the middle, there will be room for the Tigers to run with those screens and draws. More likely, The Tigers will be victimized by an unusual amount of negative plays on offense.
If healthy, these two teams look pretty evenly matched. Turnovers will tell the tale. Look for a tight, defensive struggle. Auburn has a big edge on special teams.
Prediction: A ferocious, hard-hitting game ends in regulation, when Wes Byrum nails a last-second field goal. Auburn survives, 16-13.
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