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3 key matchups for Auburn-Ole Miss, potential Playoff elimination game

Can No. 3 Auburn's offense keep rolling against maybe the best defense it will face? Can No. 4 Ole Miss do anything to avoid passing downs on offense? (7 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN.)

There's always another test. First, you have to prove that you can play at a really high level. Then, after your first big win, you have to prove that you can maintain your focus and keep playing well. Then, in most cases, you lose, and you have to prove you can rebound.

Auburn had it pretty easy last year. The Tigers suffered their only loss early on, before we knew they were as good as they would end up becoming. They pulled off nearly unprecedented, late-season improvement and rode a wave through two miracle finishes and an SEC title game win before we finally realized how good they were.

In 2014, Ole Miss is following a more customary path. And because of that, Saturday represents a rather customary test. The Rebels responded to their enormous win over Alabama with two steady wins over Texas A&M and Tennessee, decent teams by national standards. Now we get to find out how they respond to a crushing late loss at LSU. They have to bounce all the way back to form if they want to remain in prime Playoff position.

The SEC West features either four of the top six teams in the country (via the Playoff committee), or four of the top four (via both F/+ and the Massey Composite). This is the third of the six round-robin matchups between them.

  • October 4: Ole Miss 23, Alabama 17
  • October 11: Mississippi State 38, Auburn 23
  • November 1: Auburn at Ole Miss
  • November 15: Mississippi State at Alabama
  • November 29: Mississippi State at Ole Miss
  • November 29: Auburn at Alabama

Auburn was frowned on by the scheduling gods, getting all three of its games on the road. But the Tigers are tested enough to win in Oxford, especially if Ole Miss isn't at full effectiveness.

1. Ole Miss vs. the injury bug vs. Auburn's offense

Stat No. 1: Ole Miss ranks second in Def. F/+, and Auburn ranks third in Off. F/+.

Stat No. 2: Auburn's offense ranks eighth in Rushing S&P+ and second in Adj. Line Yards; Ole Miss' defense ranks eighth in Rushing S&P+ and 13th in Adj. Line Yards.

If you were to list Ole Miss' five best players, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, safety Cody Prewitt, and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil would be on the list. They might be the top three, actually, and all three suffered injuries at key times in Baton Rouge last Saturday. Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche suffered a season-ending ankle injury as well, and center Ben Still missed the game as expected.

The big three were all practicing by Tuesday, which is a welcome sign for a team that needs its defense to be as close to full strength as possible against an Auburn offense that might have found its cruising altitude last week.

If you tried hard enough, you could find reasons to worry about Gus Malzahn's attack. Quarterback Nick Marshall had a couple of iffy performances, and Auburn was lucky to escape Manhattan with a win on September 18, when the Tigers' offense averaged only 4.7 yards per play and scored 20 points but got bailed out by strong defensive effort and Kansas State's own mistakes. Then, in Starkville, the Tigers were sloppy out of the gates (two plays, two turnovers) and were uncharacteristically bad at finishing drives; the result: a 38-23 loss to Mississippi State.

Things seemed to fall into place against South Carolina. It was only one game (and granted, South Carolina's defense isn't Ole Miss' defense), but the Tigers gained 551 yards in 62 plays and scored 42 points in just eight possessions.

The Gamecocks did a great job of limiting Auburn's opportunities and stealing possessions -- Auburn muffed a punt in the first half, and South Carolina recovered a surprise onside kick in the second, and for the game, the Gamecocks had 11 possessions to Auburn's eight. But Auburn overcame minimal margin for error by scoring on nearly every possession. Ricardo Louis went 75 yards on an end-around, Nick Marshall had a 37-yard run, Cameron Artis-Payne had a 30-yard run, and Corey Grant had a 28-yard catch. The big-play opportunities in the passing game were minimal, and it didn't matter.

Auburn looked as much like Auburn as it had all year.

A full-strength Ole Miss defense is better than either Kansas State's or Mississippi State's. Nkemdiche and Prewitt being healthy can probably give the Rebels the overall edge here. But if anybody can figure out how to attack the edges of the speedy Land Shark defense, it's Auburn.

2. Rebels vs. the ground

Stat No. 3: Ole Miss' offense ranks 50th in Rushing S&P+ and 117th in Stuff Rate (run stops at or behind the line); Auburn's defense ranks sixth in Rushing S&P+ and fifth in Stuff Rate.

On paper, Ole Miss' run game seems decent enough. The Rebels have Tunsil, regarded as one of the nation's best offensive linemen, up front, and the combination of running backs Jaylen Walton and I'Tavius Mathers with a keep-'em-honest run threat in quarterback Bo Wallace produces some positive plays. Walton is pretty explosive, as well.

But the glitches have been far too common. An incredible 24 percent of Ole Miss' rushing attempts have either lost yardage or gained none, which has resulted in too many second- and third-and-long passing situations.

Laquon Treadwell and Vince Sanders give Wallace two of the nation's better passing-downs targets -- they have combined to catch 36 of 58 passes for 574 yards and four touchdowns (and a 48 percent success rate) when Ole Miss has fallen behind schedule. And Wallace is 17-for-32 for 203 yards with a 141.4 passer rating on third-and-10+. These are excellent numbers. And even last week, in the middle of a pretty awful game for Wallace, Ole Miss had a better-than-average 36 percent success rate on passing downs. The problem was simply that the Rebels faced too many passing downs to begin with, and that could be a problem against Auburn.

Auburn averages 4.9 non-sack tackles for loss per game, 18th in the country. Linebacker Cassanova McKinzy leads the way with 5.5 non-sack TFLs, tackle Montravius Adams has four, and safety Robenson Therezie has three. An impressive 27 percent of carries against Auburn lose ground.

The Tigers don't have much of a pass rush, but they've got a load of athletic defensive backs, and they rank ninth in the country in Passing Downs S&P+; once they push you behind schedule, they close out the drive. And Ole Miss is typically more than willing to fall behind schedule.

3. Both teams vs. the goal line

Stat No. 4: Auburn's offense averages 5.3 points per scoring opportunity (drives with a first down inside the opponent's 40), 15th in the country. Ole Miss' defense is allowing just 2.6 points per opportunity, first in the country.

Stat No. 5: Ole Miss' offense averages 4.6 points per scoring opportunity, 60th. Auburn's defense allows 3.5 points per opportunity, 15th.

Heading into the Auburn-Mississippi State game, I wrote this:

Despite decent efficiency numbers, Auburn is allowing just 14.4 points per game this year because of its almost otherworldly (and/or unlikely) ability to make stops when the end zone is within reach. The Tigers tease you by giving you opportunities to score, then taking them away. The game changes when the field behind the defense shrinks, and Auburn's defense is as good as any in these situations.

The Tigers convert their opportunities better than you do, and they beat you because of it. Their per-opportunity scoring margin is the best in the country.

Mississippi State isn't chopped liver ... But in a game that will provide each team at least five or six chances to score, the difference between field goals and touchdowns could be huge.

The team that punches the ball into the end zone more, wins. This game is pretty simple to analyze sometimes, isn't it?

Mississippi State beat Auburn, in part because of its ability to turn the tables here. The Bulldogs averaged 5.4 points per scoring opportunity, and Auburn averaged just 3.3. Last week in Baton Rouge, neither Ole Miss nor LSU could convert opportunities into points. Each team generated four scoring opportunities, but they combined for just two touchdowns and a field goal; LSU averaged 2.5 points per opportunity (national average: 4.7), and Ole Miss averaged 1.75.

In terms of per-opportunity scoring margin, Ole Miss is second-best in the country (thanks mostly to that defense), and Auburn is third. But each team failed in this regard in its respective losses. Chances are, whoever fails again, loses again.