There’s been a lot of talk this week about injuries.
The Rebels have managed to avoid major in-season injuries most of this year. They were hurt in the off-season with the losses of Chief Brown, Tee Shepard and Carlos Davis. Also Collins Moore. It was thought at the time that Moore’s absence would be felt a lot more given the lack of depth at receiver and how that group collectively was under achieving in August.
That receiver group has really progressed, however.
The secondary too. I’m quite sure they could not have sustained another major injury, but losing Shepard, who Hugh Freeze called his best cover corner, was big enough. With the major rise of Senquez Golson the Rebels have managed to absorb those injuries and become a dominant secondary.
Cody Prewitt has been a big part of that, and if you take him away, the Rebels are very different and not in a good way.
Likewise for Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche.
It looks like those three guys will play, so the question becomes pain tolerance, how much of it they can withstand and continue to play at the high level to which they have become accustomed and their teammates and coaches have relied upon.
This major concern about injuries has not been misplaced. Those guys are major losses if they’re not around.
There are others who need to perform at high level Saturday night against Auburn. Players to be sure, but also the coaches.
These are themes I hit on in today’s column for the Mother Ship. Hugh Freeze and his staff need to bring their A game for Auburn.
There have been few times in three years that a Freeze team has not been prepared.
If there was a time for this team to be flat and lifeless this year it was at Texas A&M one week after the Rebels’ upset of Alabama.
The Rebels went into what I thought would be their most hostile environment of the year – turns out they allowed Tiger Stadium to become more hostile – and hit the Aggies in the mouth early on both sides of the ball.
The 110,000 plus home fans never got into the game. You could have 300,000-plus, and if you come out the way the Rebels did at A&M the result will be the same.
Ole Miss was prepared and executed from the get-go.
Last year at Auburn was a different story. Players say they were prepared and in position but didn’t always make tackles against Nick Marshall. That game was the first that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn really turned Marshall loose with the read option. It worked. He ran for 140 yards and two scores on 14 carries.
This year the Rebels are at home, and they’ve had last year’s video of Marshall’s big game to study. That game and many others.
Early execution is just as important, this time to get the crowd behind the Rebels, not to remove the crowd.
Play-calling has been a big topic this week. Don’t be surprised to see a more aggressive approach against Auburn not because Bo Wallace called for it on Monday, but because consistent first-down running in the second half against LSU did not work.
Execution depends often on personnel. If Tunsil goes the distance at left tackle execution will be better.
The guess here is Bo Wallace is better. His 14-for-33 passing performance at LSU was due in part to Tunsil’s absence, but Wallace missed some throws too.
A good day from Wallace would bode well for Ole Miss against an Auburn secondary that is next to last in the SEC in passing yards allowed with 242.0 per game. Here’s the catch. Auburn is sixth in the league in pass defense efficiency and tied for second with 13 interceptions. Last week the Tigers gave up 416 passing yards but picked off three passes in a 42-35 home win over South Carolina.
Wallace tends to follow bad with good. He’ll play with a chip on his shoulder, and he’ll have a good game.
Defensively the Rebels are going to have to play their most assignment-sound game of the year. They’re going to have to make some one-on-one tackles. They’re perfectly capable of that, but often the success of this defense has been about swarming to the ball-carrier. Marshall’s deception and quickness will get him in the open field, and stopping him for a short gain will often have to be a solo effort.
So the execution has to be there on both sides of the ball.
The game week preparation and in-game calls have to be top notch too.
In short, the Rebels, No. 4 in the first release of the college football playoff pairings, have to be clean and efficient as they have been against Alabama, Texas A&M and others to beat the No. 3 team.
This is indeed a playoff elimination game. Sure, a two-loss SEC champion would have to be considered for the mix, but the pressure is off the charts for the loser of this game.
The bottom line on the future of what has been a very special season is this: With three SEC games remaining Ole Miss controls its destiny, and you could not ask for a better home-road break down.
The Rebels have never won the SEC West. The path isn’t easy, but it’s manageable.
As long as they get consistent, efficient performance from all parts and pieces involved.
Prediction: Ole Miss 24, Auburn 20