|Date of game: 11/1/2014
(4) Auburn (6-1) at (7) Ole Miss (7-1) (ET)
GAME NOTES: With their respective fate in the SEC Western Division race on the line, the fourth-ranked Auburn Tigers and the seventh-ranked Ole Miss Rebels will square off at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday night.
Auburn lost ground in the division in a marquee matchup with now-No. 1 Mississippi State on Oct. 11, losing 38-3, but it has since gotten back on track with a 42-35 home win last Saturday against South Carolina. The Tigers are 6-1 overall, and at 3-1 in the SEC, they are looking up in the standings at Mississippi State (4-0) and are a half-game behind Alabama (4-1) and Ole Miss (4-1).
"Obviously, this was a very big win for us at home," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "We felt like (South Carolina) was a top-10 team in the preseason for a reason. Our defense did not play their best, but at the end they came through."
Ole Miss ascended all the way to No. 3 in the AP Poll following a 7-0 start, which included a signature win over Alabama on Oct. 4 (23-17), but it suffered its first setback of the season last weekend in Baton Rouge with a 10-7 loss to nationally-ranked LSU.
"This league is brutal," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "It's difficult each Saturday to win football games...Our kids fought, I thought our defense gave us a chance to win the game. We just could not manage any points.
Unlike Auburn, the Rebels still control their own destiny in their quest for an SEC Championship Game bid, as they end the regular-season with a home game against Mississippi State on Nov. 29.
The Tigers have a 28-10 lead in the all-time series with the Rebels, which includes a 30-22 triumph last season in Auburn.
Auburn's offense has been just as strong this season as it was a year ago as SEC champions. The unit amasses 39.3 ppg while displaying strong balance between the run (281.0 ypg) and pass (215.9 ypg), although Malzahn still thinks there's room for improvement.
"We're getting better (with our balance)," Malzahn said. "We were more efficient with running the football and playing with pace...At least we're taking the right step, let's put it that way."
Nick Marshall had one of the best games of his career in the South Carolina win. He completed 12-of-14 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 89 yards and three scores and went without a turnover. His dual-threat numbers this season (1,103 passing yards, 581 yards, 18 TDs, three INTs) have been everything the team could ask for.
Cameron Artis-Payne is the workhorse tailback, having turned 151 carries into 831 yards and six touchdowns. Corey Grant (41 carries, 257 yards, two TDs) is also worked in.
D'haquille Williams is Marshall's preferred target in the passing game with 34 receptions, 527 yards and five touchdowns. Sammie Coates disappears for large stretches but sometimes emerges as a viable deep threat (13 receptions, 236 yards, TD).
Auburn's defense has been one of the SEC's best this season, allowing 20.7 ppg and 362.4 ypg with 16 takeaways, but the unit has taken a step backwards in recent weeks by allowing 36.5 ppg in its last two games.
Jonathan Jones is a difference maker in the defensive backfield with five interceptions and a forced fumble. Johnathan Ford (48 tackles, two INTs, FF) and Cassanova McKinzy (46 tackles, 6.5 TFL, INT, FF) are the top tacklers.
Ole Miss' offense has been rock-solid this season in putting up 31.9 ppg and 418.2 ypg, but last week it had its first disappointing effort of the season, as it tallied just 313 yards and one touchdown in the loss to LSU.
Despite Bo Wallace's poor showing last week (14-of-33, 176 yards, TD, INT), he is still in the midst of a great campaign. He throws for just shy of 260 yards per game on 62.4 percent completion percentage and has scored 20 total touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
Laquon Treadwell is the Rebels' most talented receiver with 38 receptions for 529 yards and four touchdowns. Vince Sanders (27 receptions, 431 yards, four TDs), Cody Core (26 receptions, 390 yards, five TDs) and Evan Engram (19 receptions, 292 yards, TD) give the receiving corps plenty of depth.
The rushing attack averages less than four yards per carry, but Jaylen Walton has been solid out of the backfield both as a rusher (376 yards, four TDs) and a receiver (13 receptions, 160 yards, two TDs).
Unquestionably, Ole Miss has become one of the nation's best teams thanks to its elite defense, which ranks first in the FBS in points allowed (10.5 ppg), ninth in yards allowed (305.0 ypg) and second in turnovers gained (24). Freeze attributes the success to a deep well of talent that he can rely on.
"Defensively, we're playing 32 kids a game," Freeze said. "Very few people, with the exception of Cody (Prewitt) and Robert (Nkemdiche), are playing significant snaps more than others. I think that's a good thing. It has kept us somewhat fresh. That's critical going into the stretch run here so you're not totally fatigued at a lot of spots."
Unfortunately the injury bug bit the defense hard last week. Denzel Nkemdiche (28 tackles, 3.5 TFL, sack) will miss the remainder of the season with an ankle injury, while Robert Nkemdiche (21 tackles, 2.0 sacks) and Prewitt (43 tackles, two INTs) are listed as questionable.
Among the healthy options for the Ole Miss defense are Tony Conner (47 tackles, 5.5 TFL, INT), Mike Hilton (45 tackles, three INTs) and Marquis Haynes (6.5 sacks). Senquez Golson has been arguably the biggest defensive difference maker in the country with a nation-leading eight interceptions.
These two defensive-minded teams with their backs against the wall are sure to be in for 60 minutes of hard-nosed action. Figure for the Rebels to have the slight advantage playing at home in this one
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ole Miss 24, Auburn 20