Auburn Preview: A closer look at the Rebels’ next challenge
After a thriller in Little Rock, the Ole Miss Rebels (5-2, 1-2 SEC) look to carry the momentum into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium against the Auburn Tigers (4-3, 1-3) at 11 a.m. (CT) on ESPN.
OXFORD, Miss. — Auburn rolls into town with two consecutive losses that have created internal turmoil within the program. Fans have been calling for Coach Gus Malzahn’s job–and a replacement at quarterback–throughout the week. This upcoming weekend in Oxford could be a recipe for disaster for the Tigers if they suffer their third straight loss.
Scrambling for solutions
The Tigers’ coaches are feeling the heat; the players are feeling the heat. Auburn senior linebacker Deshaun Davis said he would be “naked and under a bridge” had someone told them that the Tigers would be 4-3 at this point.
After their home loss to the Tennessee Volunteers, Malzahn mentioned that there would be “tweaks” to the offense. These changes are expected to the offensive line, which has been plagued by injury. Over the past four games, the unit has allowed 12 sacks, which could be the reason Stidham has struggled recently.
The Tiger offense
In Monday’s press conference, Malzahn announced quarterback Jarrett Stidham would remain the starter despite the struggles. He emphasized that the 6-foot-3, 215-pound signal-caller needs to protect the football. Stidham has thrown for an average of 214 yards per game while notching 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions with a 60.6 completion percentage.
With no true stars around him, the Stephenville, Texas native just hasn’t shined at quarterback like most expected, as he was deemed to be a savior for this Auburn team when he transferred from Baylor.
The Tiger rushing attack only averages 113.3 yards per game, which is heavily underwhelming for a team that averaged 200+ yards per game the prior two seasons. Running backs JaTarvious Whitlow and Kam Martin have carried the load for the team, but have been somewhat mediocre compared to previous Tiger RBs. Whitlow, who is their leading rusher, is questionable for the game with a shoulder injury. Malzahn mentioned the Tigers will use the running back “committee” and the one with the “hot hand” will get the football.
New kid on the block
Sophomore running back Malik Miller has emerged for the Tigers and had 6 catches for 57 yards and 6 rushes for 32 yards against Tennessee. His versatility and athleticism make him a real X-factor for the Auburn from multiple spots on the field.
Miller hasn’t even appeared in some games this year for the Tigers, but after a strong showing against Tennessee, it would not be surprising if he is a role player in this game. Like Malzahn said, the “hot hand” will get the ball this week, and right now, Miller certainly has a hot hand. The Rebel defense should be prepared to see Miller in late down situations, maybe even more.
Despite their recent problems, this Auburn team has playmakers on defense. Coach Matt Luke realizes the Tigers have “elite” talent, as well as experience with many upperclassmen on the unit. Senior linebackers Darrell Williams and Deshaun Davis are leaders of the defense and have a combined 102 tackles and 14.5 tackles for loss thus far.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what has been Auburn’s problem as of late, because there is no lack of talent on the defense for them. Things just seemed to come unraveled a bit as of late, and especially last week versus an average Tennessee team.
NWO could prove problematic, given Auburn’s defensive woes
The Tigers showed vulnerability in their passing defense, allowing 328 yards against Tennessee last weekend. Junior defensive back Jeremiah Dinson, who is third on the team in tackles, is suspended for the first half due to a targeting violation. This could allow SEC passing leader Jordan Ta’amu to take advantage of a less-experienced Auburn DB group and capitalize early.
Despite the loss of Ole Miss wide receiver D.K. Metcalf to a neck injury, the Rebels’ wide receiver group could still have a field day for a half if Dinson’s replacement isn’t up to speed with the NWO.
The Rebels seem to be locked in for this upcoming game, which many believe to be an important contest for each team. With a victory, the Rebels could gain even more momentum and move to 6-2 as they prepare for the remainder of the season against SEC opponents. A Rebel win would put Ole Miss at 6-2 in October…that’s something to hang your hat on in the SEC.
Although the Tigers are 4-3, they have the respect of Coach Luke and the Ole Miss team. “They’re one of the best teams in the country,” Luke said earlier this week.
Hopefully, the Rebels can catch the Tigers just at the right time, in front of a big crowd at home, and earn a victory against a demoralized team.