Photo courtesy of Auburn athletics
As we have seen so many times before, the path to Atlanta rolls through Auburn, Ala.
On Saturday, the 18th-ranked Tigers will play host to No. 10 Ole Miss at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
With one conference loss each, a trip to the SEC title game is still in play. Auburn (5-2, 2-1 SEC) controls its own destiny in the SEC West while Ole Miss (6-1, 3-1 SEC) needs help.
This matchup is likely a must-win for both schools in order to make a trip to Atlanta. The contest will begin at 7 p.m. ET and air on ESPN.
This is a series that has been dominated by Auburn, which leads the Rebels 34-10 all-time. In fact, Ole Miss has not won back-to-back games in this series since the early-1950s. The last victory for Ole Miss came in 2015, when it knocked off Auburn at Jordan-Hare, 27-19.
Still, these programs do have a lot of history despite the lopsided results. Whether it is sharing head coaches or finding a way to knock off Alabama, these programs have a lot of similarities.
For the first time since 2015, Ole Miss has cracked the top 10.
This recent surge can be attributed to head coach Lane Kiffin and coordinator Jeff Lebby, who have put a revolutionary offense on display. Under their control, quarterback Matt Corral has blossomed into a superstar and some consider him to be the Heisman Trophy favorite.
The defense has improved from last year, but has still been rather inconsistent. For example, the Rebels managed to give up 51 points against Arkansas. Fortunately, the offense stepped up and got the 1-point win against the Razorbacks.
This is the most talented team Ole Miss has had in a while, and a win against Auburn on the road would launch it into the contender category. Injuries and inconsistency have made some people nervous, but the Rebels have answered the call more times than not this year. A huge road win would further silence some critics.
Auburn is playing its best football right now, and had a bye week to prepare for the Rebels.
Last time out, quarterback Bo Nix continued to show exponential growth against Arkansas as the Tigers pulled off a top-20 win on the road, 38-23.
With Ole Miss and Texas A&M ahead, Auburn will have its work cut out for it. Two wins here, and Auburn could potentially set up an SEC West winner-take-all matchup in the Iron Bowl, which the Tigers play at home.
Like Ole Miss, the Tigers have improved each and every week.
Keys to Victory
The health of Corral is critical. He has not been playing at 100% the last two weeks. His reluctance to slide and aggressiveness as a runner get the Rebels some extra yards, but Corral has taken a lot of hits. Corral has made plenty of plays, but teammates and coaches would probably like to see the Heisman hopeful do more to protect himself.
There is plenty of talent around Corral, but he is one of the Heisman frontrunners for a reason. He makes this offense go. Without him, the Rebels would be looking for a lot of answers.
Getting the run game going is crucial, especially against a defense that has done a fine job at stopping it this year. In short, the Rebels need a game plan that can protect Corral without restricting what he can do.
Fourth-down offense is also critical. The Rebels go for it on fourth down more than anyone, and the Tigers have one of the best fourth-down defenses in the country. Two weeks ago, Arkansas went 0-for-3 against Auburn in those situations.
Despite struggling to get a run game going, Auburn has managed to find ways to move the ball in recent weeks. That’s largely thanks to Nix, who has taken leaps as a signal-caller from his first two seasons on the plains.
Running back Tank Bigsby is the best player on the field when Auburn is on offense. Expect the Tigers to rely on him on Saturday. While he has not been producing the way Auburn fans would like, the reduced amount of touches has kept him fresh for longer.
Against an inconsistent Ole Miss defense, Auburn should be able to move the ball and score if it can avoid turnovers.
Stopping the Rebel offense is where Auburn needs to focus its attention. What Auburn did two weeks ago against KJ Jefferson and Arkansas should be a perfect game plan for this week, with wrinkles of course.
If Auburn can get pressure on Corral and tighten up its coverage, it will be hard for the banged-up signal-caller to make plays the way he has in recent weeks.
Of all the matchups this year, this has been the hardest to predict. Both of these teams have tons of momentum, and have been playing their best football as of late.
The aforementioned fourth-down plays will be critical in this game. In a contest that should be close, these plays will be the difference-maker.
Playing at home gives Auburn the advantage, but Ole Miss proved it can go into a hostile environment and win two weeks ago at Tennessee.
At the end of the day, Auburn is a healthier team right now and is playing better at the moment. Both teams will have chances to win, but Auburn’s defense will be able to slow Corral enough.
The Tigers make another statement.
Final: Auburn 35, Ole Miss 28
Other Predictions From Around the SEC
Missouri 28, Vanderbilt 17
Georgia 41, Florida 17
Kentucky 28, Mississippi State 21