The Ole Miss Rebels play host to the Auburn Tigers this Saturday, in a meeting of two teams that have left the SEC dumbfounded in 2016.
Ole Miss, a preseason national championship dark horse, has fallen to 3-4 and completely out of the SEC West Division race. Auburn, a team that seemed destined for irrelevance this season, controls its own destiny heading into week nine.
The Rebels continue to flounder in a downward spiral that began roughly 29 minutes into the season opener. They have displayed an uncanny knack for bungling leads, jumping ahead of both Florida State and Alabama by three touchdowns in the first half, only to crumble down the stretch in embarrassing fashion.
Last week against LSU, though, Ole Miss was dealt an even more troubling loss.
For the first time all season, the Rebels were thoroughly outmatched for almost the entirety of the game. After picking up a quick touchdown and field goal to start the first quarter, they were outscored by 27 points over the final 49:48 on their way to a 38-21 blowout loss. Outside of Ole Miss’ opening offensive possession, star quarterback Chad Kelly completed 17-of-29 passes for 152 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. Meanwhile, LSU’s Leonard Fournette rushed for three touchdowns and a school-record 284 yards despite carrying the ball only 16 times, providing greater concern for an already shaky defense.
The Rebels still have a chance to salvage what is left of a disappointing 2016 season, and perhaps even save head coach Hugh Freeze’s job. Unfortunately, that journey begins against an Auburn team on a four-game winning streak that began when offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee took over play-calling duties.
The Tigers handed then-No. 17 Arkansas a 56-3 beatdown last week, their second victory over a ranked opponent this season. Sophomore quarterback Sean White has shown the poise of a seasoned upperclassman as of late, while the rushing attack — despite playing without starting running back Kerryon Johnson — ran wild for 543 yards.
This explosive backfield is in position to dominate an Ole Miss run defense that ranks 113th out of 128 FBS schools.
Matchup to watch: Ole Miss offensive line vs. Auburn DE Carl Lawson
As they have for much of the season, the Rebels will try to overcome shortcomings by leaning on their greatest strength: Chad Kelly.
The Ole Miss quarterback has looked every bit the part of a potential first-round draft pick at times this season. When he does, his team appears unstoppable offensively — despite a running game that, outside of Kelly’s dual-threat contributions, has been largely inconsistent.
If pass protection falters, though, as it has in each of the team’s losses this season, Kelly’s performance takes a noticeable downturn. Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson, a first-team All-SEC candidate whose seven sacks are tied for the second-most in the conference, could easily become the latest pass rusher to expose the Ole Miss offensive line.
The Rebels simply have too much working against them to feel optimistic about this week. Auburn’s rushing attack targets the weakest point of their defense, and an outing similar to last week’s putrid performance against LSU could be in the works. The only chance for Ole Miss seems to be a shootout. Even then, Kelly’s best game may not be enough if the defense fails to show up on Saturday.
Final score: Auburn 41, Ole Miss 35